The Rowanwood Curse – Elizabeth O’Connell

The Rowanwood Curse CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #1
First Published: 23rd January, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem is the apprentice of his magician brother Hal, and is bored of the dull routine work they’ve been taking on. Then Hal is called to break a curse on Sir Jasper Pryce’s daughter. In order to break it, Hal must figure out who cast the curse and why.

The story is told by Jem as he aids Hal. It has a very Sherlock Holmes vibe, being set in a similar era with the companion of the genius sleuth as the one writing the story. That said, the relationship dynamics are different, as they’re brothers. As well as the case at hand, it explores some of the circumstances around their father’s death. Hal initially tries to keep those things from Jem, but does start to share before the end. It looks like that mystery will continue to be developed as the series progresses.

This is a world where magic was the major push in the industrial revolution. Spirits and elementals are bound into machines to make them function. Industrial magic is treated as a science, with formal teaching and rigid thinking about how it works. The result is local folktales and magical teachings are dismissed as superstition. Local wise women aren’t considered true magical practitioners, unlike the learned gentlemen who’ve studied it at academic institutions. I liked the handling of this aspect of the world, as it mirrors the real systematic bias against local knowledge. It’s also clear the bias is wrong. Hal realises there’s a lot the magical institutions don’t know, and the local yarbwoman has valuable information for the case.

It’s an interesting mystery, weaving in folklore with family secrets. The focus on understanding the curse is a twist on usual murder mystery formats.

I wasn’t comfortable with the handing of disability. All examples of mental illness are people who’ve been affected by magic. They’re possessed, cursed, or otherwise been driven mad by magic. It would have been nice to see a contrast to this, rather than having magically induced mental illness as the only sort that existed. There’s also a heavy layer of pity towards the idea of being disabled, and Jem is upset that people will think him an invalid for having to take medication (for his magic sensitivity). Sir Jasper is blind in one eye, but as that aspect is barely there, it’s not really a counterpoint to the idea that disability is the end, and caused by magic.

Overall, it was an entertaining story, and sets up some bigger mysteries for the future. It will appeal to people who like crossovers between mystery and historical fantasy.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

The Days of Tao – Wesley Chu

Days of Tao CoverSeries: Tao, #3.5
First Published: 30th April, 2016
Genre: Science Fiction / Novella
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Subterranean

Cameron Tan is studying in Greece when he’s called up for a secret mission. Another agent has important information, and needs help getting out of the country.

The concept of the story was interesting. There are two rival alien groups, who live inside human hosts. The alien brings knowledge to their host, but not amazing superpowers. This gives the whole thing more of a spy action vibe, as no one is a bullet sponge.

I also enjoyed the opening. It starts with Nazar, the agent who has to get out of Greece. He’s competent and has a complex past. But this is the only time he really gets development, as he doesn’t have any other sections from his perspective. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t escape on his own, as he’d have been much safer. Having a damaged arm (from an injury years back) was not a good reason. It made him distinctive, but it’s not like the escape plan was ever to walk through border control. This was a very weak reason for needing help.

I wasn’t particularly interested in Cameron Tan, the actual main character. He’s the classic inept slacker guy, who for some reason keeps getting important tasks to do. I got the impression I was supposed to find that hilarious, especially the repeated joke about low grades in art history. The first half of the story is mostly how funny it is that he’s terrible at stuff, and everything else is happening painfully slowly.

Then there’s a sudden shift when the group gets moving. There are too many characters, and everything’s going too fast, for them to get any development. It’s hard to really get inside the difficult choices Cameron has to make when the people around him are so flat. The tone also goes from laugh-at-the-funny-guy to death-and-angst. Which is the realistic outcome of choosing someone incompetent for a task. This did raise my interest in the book. But people who enjoyed the first part might find that change a downer.

All in all, this story didn’t work for me at novella length. Fewer characters and a tighter opening half would have done a lot. I’m sure readers who’ve been following the series will like it, and it does appear to set up some things for future stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the world though.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Movie CoverGenre: Superhero / Film
Main Cast: Henry Cavill; Ben Affleck; Amy Adams; Gal Gadot; Jesse Eisenberg; Jeremy Irons
First Shown: March, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

I wasn’t that fond of Man of Steel. So when I went to the cinema recently, I walked past the staff in their superhero costumes, the table of drinks, and the balloons. Instead, I headed into Zootropolis, which was great. But there had been a bit of a mistake when the tickets were booked, which meant the manager had to handwrite tickets for a showing at a slightly different time. The cinema sent free tickets as compensation. So it’s thanks to Odeon Cinemas that I’m writing this review of Batman v Superman.

In the aftermath of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod, people are questioning whether Superman is a good thing for the world. Batman (Ben Affleck) has no doubt about the answer: after seeing the carnage caused by the battle, he thinks Superman has to go. But it might be that there’s something more happening than either of them realise.

One of my criticisms of Man of Steel was the amount of death that was brushed under the carpet. Epic fights happened with no attempt to move the fight away from the city. Civilians had to fend for themselves, if the film even acknowledged they existed. This film does address that. The opening scenes were the strongest on that score, as they show Bruce Wayne on the ground during the finale of the previous film. It humanises the conflict in a way Man of Steel failed to do. Some of the later scenes did not work so well, as there were a whole lot of happened-to-be-uninhabited places in two major cities. That was rather convenient and hard to believe. Though at least the heroes are now considering that civilians will die if they’re not careful.

I liked the concept behind Batman. He’s older, and twenty years as Batman has taken its toll. Wayne Manor is a ruin, so he lives in a new building on the grounds. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is also older, and has become rather more cynical. Given how often the Batman origin story is done, it was a good choice to have an established Batman, with the issues that come with that.

Batman going darker is the main theme of his storyline. He tortures criminals for information, which fails as it’s not a reliable method. As Alfred points out, it’s Bruce Wayne who finds the information through non-violent means. The violence is a coping mechanism, not a solution. This was an interesting take on Batman, but I would have liked more on what led to this. He has flashbacks about his parents dying, but the traumatic things he would have faced after that are glossed over.

Superman’s storyline didn’t have a lot going for it. He gets very little time as Clark Kent, and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) ends up doing the reporter thing without him. There’s a lot of standing around looking sad and feeling guilty about people dying. Not a whole lot of really getting into his story, or showing his relationship with Lois developing.

The final main hero is Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). She has a small role in this one, but it’s a good sign for her coming solo film. She has an air about her, as though she’s a lot older than she looks, which really works for the role. She also brought a bit of interest to later fight scenes, as she’s a lot more tactical with her weapons than the other two.

The villain is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of the original Lex Luthor. Having him as the next generation of Luthors isn’t a bad thing, though little time is given on expanding his backstory and motivation. It wasn’t clear how the older Lex Luthor died or how else things had gone differently in this timeline. All of this would have impacted the life of the current Lex Luthor.

Unfortunately, undeveloped elements are a trend. There’s a lot of introducing characters and plot, then trying to wrap them up neatly and quickly. This doesn’t make for the best story.

Taking Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), for example. He’s in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated (above the knee), due to injuries from the big attack of the previous film. He feels bitter and blames Superman. When he climbs the Superman statue to spray messages, it looks like he might get a role that goes beyond being there to pity. But he doesn’t, and that’s his last moment of agency when he’s not being manipulated. I was particularly uncomfortable with the press interview, where the camera moves to show his legs as he complains about losing everything. It’s set up in a way to point at his disability as something to pity. It would have been a lot more interesting to have his anger against Superman and the system actually come to a resolution. And as a result, for him to come to terms with what happened. But there’s no time to develop his story.

On to some of the other things going on, mental illness is handled the way superhero stories often do. Batman’s trauma is shown with empathy, even when his behaviour is going off the rails. Lex Luthor is the bad guy, which means he’s called psychotic as an insult (he doesn’t come across as actually psychotic… he also shows signs of trauma). Lex is irredeemable and mentally ill, while Batman can change and is troubled.

There’s a scene where Superman rescues a girl in Mexico. The crowd holds their hands out to touch him, as though he’s a god. Superman might be uncomfortable with this, but it still paints him as the great white saviour, worshipped by those simple non-white folk who don’t know any better.

Gotham and Metropolis were difficult to tell apart. They were also really close together. I never imagined they’d basically be districts of each other, viewable just by looking the right way. If it hadn’t been for characters saying where the action was happening, I wouldn’t have known.

There’s a lot more that could be said without needing to give away major plot twists or talk about the ending, simply because there was so much happening. It’s really the setup for multiple films.

I didn’t hate it, and I did like it better than Man of Steel. There were some themes I’d like to see explored more in sequels, like what it means to be an older Batman. There was plenty of action, and it’s likely to be enjoyable enough for superhero fans. But I didn’t love it because of the cramming issue.

When it comes down to it, I’m a lot more interested in the possible future films that will come from this. Wonder Woman is finally getting another film. After reading Cyborg’s adventures, I’m curious about how his story will be developed. Aquaman has always hit my love of ocean stories, even before Jason Momoa was cast in the part. The groundwork for the setting could lead to something great, but the filmmakers do need to slow down and tell one complete story per film, rather than trying to do everything at once.

The Honey Mummy – E. Catherine Tobler

The Honey Mummy CoverSeries: A Folley & Mallory Adventure, #3
First Published: 1st March, 2016
Genre: Steampunk / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Eleanor Folley and Virgil Mallory travel to Egypt to assist their friend Cleo. There’s a mystery surrounding a set of unusual iron rings and a sarcophagus that may hold answers to Cleo’s accident.

There’s a lot going on, as this is the third in the series. Virgil is a werewolf and Eleanor can turn into a jackal, due to being a daughter of Anubis. She’s still getting used to this, as well as her romance with Virgil. She’s also in the process of cataloguing the archives of Mistral, a society that’s been gathering artefacts from Egypt for study.

All of that is thrown into confusion when someone attacks the archive, leaving one of the rings. They travel to Egypt to attend an auction with Cleo, hoping to find out what’s going on. Also accompanying them is Auberon, who had been on the verge of a romantic relationship with Cleo before her accident.

I felt the book did a good job at recapping what needed to be recapped. The recaps weren’t confusing or overly longwinded. They were spread where needed through the story.

Cleo’s accident involved being pinned under a statue. Her arms had to be amputated below the elbows, and were replaced with steampunk mechanical arms. Some of her recovery is shown in flashbacks and letters, as she learns to use her new arms, and comes to terms with the loss of her old ones. I was a little concerned at first that it’d be a story about someone deciding life wasn’t worth living with disability, but her reasons for pushing Auberon away are not directly about her arms.

A large theme is the handling of Egypt’s history and property. This is a steampunk version of the era when Westerners raided Egyptian tombs, damaging much of the archaeology out of greed. Eleanor pushes back against this to an extent, as she believes in properly cataloguing finds, and wants to keep things safe. She finds mummy unwrappings repugnant. But she still believes that removing things from Egypt is a good way to keep them safe, as they can be returned later. An opinion that is only directly challenged by people who are either villains or not entirely trustworthy. I wasn’t comfortable with that, given that in our history, most of those items still haven’t been given back. It would have been nice if someone who wasn’t shady had wanted to keep the items in Egypt, and away from Mistral, as a counterpoint to Eleanor’s optimism about it.

For that matter, it would have been nice to see more Egyptian characters. Eleanor and Cleo have some Egyptian ancestry, but the Egyptians without European ties don’t have big roles.

I did like the interaction between the characters, as this was about strengthening relationships, rather than starting fresh. I also liked that Anubis acted in ways that didn’t always make sense to Eleanor, as he’s a god and has a rather different perspective on things. It’s an interesting story, and took some turns I wasn’t expecting. It mixes together steampunk with Egyptian tradition and time travel, in a way that works. I just couldn’t really get on board with the idea that Mistral were the good guys.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Agent Carter (Season One)

Agent Carter Cover (UK)Alternate Titles: Marvel’s Agent Carter
Genre: Superhero / Television Series
Main Cast: Hayley Atwell; James D’Arcy; Chad Michael Murray; Enver Gjokaj; Shea Whigham
First Shown: 6th January, 2015
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

** This is a full season review, so will discuss some scenes from later in the series. It will not reveal the major plot twists. Please don’t post information about season two in the comments. I’ve not seen it yet. **

Agent Carter tells the story of Peggy Carter’s (Hayley Atwell) life after the war. She works for the SSR, but is constantly undervalued for being a woman. They’re more interested in having her take the lunch orders than doing secret agent stuff. When Howard Stark’s (Dominic Cooper) vault is raided, and his dangerous inventions end up on the black market, he contacts her to clear his name. Part of the deal is assistance from his butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy).

One unusual thing with this series is we know where it ends. Peggy will found SHIELD and survive into old age. Howard will eventually become the father of Tony Stark. Jarvis will live long enough to inspire Tony, and be immortalised as the A.I. Jarvis. This is the story of how everyone gets there.

I enjoyed how the story progressed. Each episode tackles a new part of the overall plot, with plenty of twists and turns. The short season meant there was no filler or waiting on the movies to reach a certain point (an issue Agents of SHIELD is prone to having). What makes it though is the relationship that develops between Peggy and Jarvis – one of friendship and mutual respect. I’m down for watching them solving mysteries together.

Peggy losing Steve is also tackled head on. She’s grieving the loss of the man, while society only sees Captain America. One reminder of this is a radio show, where her role is taken by Betty Carver, a damsel in distress. As well as being salt on her wounds, this show highlights how history was often rewritten to exclude the women who were part of it. The secret agent becomes a nurse, who is there to mend socks and get kidnapped.

A large part of the conflict for Peggy is getting things done in a society that’s sure she’s incapable of doing so. It’s why she ends up going behind the back of her colleagues, as she knows they’ll neither believe her, nor be willing to look at theories outside of Howard selling his own inventions. Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham) is trying to protect her. Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) is the typical women-don’t-belong-here sexist. Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) is the best of the bunch in many ways, but still idolises her in a way that a real person can’t live up to.

It’d be easy to show Peggy as the single exceptional woman, but that’s not how it goes down. One of my favourite moments is when the women she lives with are explaining the elaborate ways they smuggle food out of the buffet. They don’t lack ingenuity. They lack opportunity.

It also touches on disability issues. Daniel is a war veteran with a leg injury, who walks with a crunch. He’s been told his survival is an inconvenience. When someone notices his developing feelings for Peggy, he’s told she’d never date a guy with a crutch. Daniel also stands out among his colleagues as not being the classic Northern European guy (the actor is Albanian-American).

The dynamic between Daniel and Peggy is interesting, as they’re each marginalised in different ways. They use that to empathise with each other. They don’t always get it right, but it gives them a starting point to try.

Around the time I was watching, there was yet another example of a romance book where a Jewish woman falls in love with a Nazi, then converts to Christianity. There seem to have been a string of them recently. Some authors are very determined to romanticise Nazis and sweep all of the atrocities under the rug as not being that bad. One comment on this is why the non-Jewish love interest has to be a Nazi, rather than one of the many people who actively opposed them.

So I was very interested to find out that Jarvis was married to Ana, a Jewish woman. This is one of those stories about a person who opposed the Nazis doing what he can to get the woman he loves out of Europe, and to safety. I also liked that when Peggy refers to Ana being Jewish in past tense, Jarvis corrects her. She hasn’t stopped being Jewish.

What I didn’t like so much is we don’t get to meet her. This was a golden opportunity to have a positive on-screen Jewish character, and it didn’t happen. Though I can see why Jarvis would try to keep her out of things, this wouldn’t have prevented there being a scene where he made up some vague excuse and she was suspicious, or something on those lines.

It’s also very noticeable that black characters aren’t in main roles. Though I’d be happy to see more non-white people in general, I really wanted to see anti-black racism addressed given the setting and time. For a series that handles other issues of marginalisation, this is one that’s glaring in its absence.

Despite those areas where I would have liked more, I enjoyed the season as a whole. It tackles a number of difficult issues, as well as having a fun action mystery plot. I’ve always rather liked stories that handle being non-superpowered in a world with superheroes, so in many ways, I like it better than the movies it came from.