The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

kid who would be king poster

Alex Elliot, and his best friend Bedders, are prime targets for the school bullies, Lance and Kaye (yes, those names are subtle o_O). When Alex runs away from them one night and into a building site, it’s destiny that he’ll find a sword in a stone. Pulling it out, of course, sets off a whole chain of events involving shape-changing wizards, evil root-covered sorceresses, and undead knights wielding flaming weapons.

As re-imaginings of the Arthurian legends go, this one isn’t that bad. Britain is indeed in dire, leaderless times, so the whole myth works quite well. Alas, setting it in a school and using children for 99% of the cast wasn’t my favourite way to go – ymmv.

Movies starring kids largely have me asking that they *not* be too irritating, and most of the time this movie does at least hit that. But Alex’s earnestness turns whiny a few too many times for me, the obviousness of most of the set up is a bit too cheesy, and the lack of actual peril doesn’t add to the action levels.

The adult characters didn’t get nearly enough screen time, or non-scenery-chewing dialog, for my liking: I think Rebecca Ferguson is a fantastic actor, and Sir PatStew’s acting chops go without saying. Neither are best utilised here.

The one actor/character I really did like was the young Merlin. Gawky, ungainly, and so much fun, he nails the part perfectly. Again, he’s just not in it enough.

Plot-wise, as I said, it’s all very predictable, but then why would I have expected anything else?

Overall this is inoffensive family fun, and I realise I’m not the target audience. If you still need a movie to take the kids to over midterm, this one isn’t going to cause actual discomfort to the adult audience. In fact, most of my fellow viewers in the cinema seemed to be older, and the loudest laughs were from grown men. So. Hmm.

Released: 15th February 2019
Viewed: 15th February 2019
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6/10

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The Great Wall (2016)

great wall poster

The first trailer I saw for this made it look a bit like historical fiction, which was maybe vaguely interesting. It took much longer for the penny to drop: here be dragons! Why on earth would you not have that front and centre in the trailer?! And suddenly very much my cup of tea…

Turns out they’re not really dragons, but a swarm of nasty critters that feed on humans. This movie postulates that the real reason the Great Wall of China was built was to keep these things away from a – pardon the pun – all you can eat Chinese buffet. Ahem.

However, the story is handed to Matt Damon’s ‘European’ (hmm) mercenary, on the hunt for the semi-mythical ‘black powder’ to take back home. When he stumbles into the secret of the Wall, they neither believe his story or plan to allow him to take tales back to the rest of the world.

There are things to like about this movie. I’ve long been a fan of movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002), which brought an Eastern flavour to Western audiences, complete with aerial acrobatics and saturated colour palettes. Great Wall picks up on many of these facets, and as faintly ridiculous as they can be here, I did like the richly coloured armour, in shades of red, yellow, blue, and purple. The fight scenes are as impressive as you would expect, too.

However, that’s probably about it. The story is so-so, nothing particularly novel once you get past the intriguing fantasy-myth element. There was a bit of a ‘hmm’ on release about putting a white man front and centre, and while I went in unsure if this was a bit of an over-reaction, it is more than a little insulting that Matt Damon is such the hero, set up to save the day, the entire battalion that spent its life training for this, and the ‘delicate’ female, too.

I haven’t quite put my finger on what the creatures reminded me off – some sci-fi or other – but I’ve definitely seen them in a slightly different format before, so yawn.

Overall, quite the disappointment, alas, especially as I’ve been looking forward to it cropping up on a streaming platform since I missed it at the cinema. It’s not terrible, so by all means fill a boring couple of hours, but go in with much lower expectations than I managed.

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 26th January 2019
Running time: 103 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Empire of Sand – Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand cover

“Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name.”

Mehr is a pampered if illegitimate governor’s daughter, a virtual prisoner by dint of her gender in the culture she lives in, and a hated reminder of father’s first love and thus enemy of her stepmother. She is also a half-caste, and the half that comes from her mother is not blood that is seen favourably in the Empire. The stories say that the Amrithi are descended from the desert spirits, the Daiva, and hold power in their blood. And it seems as if the immortal head of the Empire’s religion might be taking notice of those like Mehr…

Much as I enjoyed this book, I think perhaps the desert setting and South Asian-inspired fantasy has been a bit too prevalent in my reading of late (although still not as cliched as the Tolkien-esque fantasy of the past half-century, natch!), as I did spend part of this book feeling like I’d read it before. Which is a shame, because otherwise it’s pretty good.

I was a little put off by the themes of women as second class, ‘delicate’ flowers, and even more so by the forced marriage to a complete stranger – however obviously that all turns out. As ever, the teen romance-y type stuff left me pretty cold.

The Daiva also reminded me of too many other things, but in fairness they were well handled. The magic of dance was at least a bit of a different approach, and I genuinely liked the concept of an Empire built on subverting the dreams of gods.

Overall, though, this was an engrossing enough read, just didn’t quite hit the spot with me for reasons not entirely its own fault. Possibly had been over-hyped, too, when in reality I found it a decent, slightly above-average YA offering.

Paperback: 432 pages / 34 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Books of Ambha book 1
Read from 30th December 2018 – 6th January 2019

My rating: 7/10

Hogfather – Terry Pratchett

Hogfather cover

“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.”

It’s safe to say that the Discworld series are some of my most beloved books, ever. And so, when asked to run a reading challenge over December, it made sense to reach for the Christmassy Hogfather.

If you’re new to Discworld, this is often given as a possible starting point – the first couple of books written, Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, are ones to go back to rather than start with, as the series hadn’t quite reached it’s stride. There are several ‘streams’ in the series, including the Watch books, the Witches books, and the Death books. The latter are probably my favourite, so I tend to suggest Mort as the best start. However, if you’re jumping in here – and that works, too – then just know that Mort and Reaper Man will give some background to this.

So… it’s almost Hogswatch on the Disc, but this year the Hogfather is suspiciously… bony. It’s less “Ho ho ho” and altogether HO HO HO. What would cause Death to step in to deliver presents across the world? And, quite frankly, how will the world cope with an Anthropomorphic Personification who takes everything a bit more literally than the rest of us?

There are a lot of elements crammed in to this book. Toothfairies, verruca gnomes plaguing Unseen University, Death of Rats, assassins, and Hex, the thinking machine, all make an appearance and add to the plot. We mainly follow Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter, although she’s working as a governess and would quite frankly rather be done with all of that nonsense.

The thing I love about Pratchett’s writing is that underneath all the fantasy, the humour pokes a sharp stick of fun at very real world issues. And, 22 years on, the satire is still highly relevant. But beyond this, there’s also a very profound message about the human condition. You get to read on whatever level you like, of course, but this is far from dumb, silly fantasy.

Hardback: 285 pages
First published: 1996
Series: Discworld book 20 / Death book 4
Read from 27th November – 11th December 2018

My rating: 9/10

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

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