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Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset

October 10, 2013 4 comments

Marvels Agents of Shield

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, episode 3. The Asset sees me watching with patience already paper thin as our heavy truck lumbers down a suspiciously empty country road only to be highjacked in a novel way. It seems someone has developed one of these superforce weapons that can brush escort vehicles off the road, and pick up and drop a truck like it’s a Tonka toy. At just the right spot, armed men now stream out of the conveniently adjacent woods and dismantle the truck. On first impressions, it seems more interesting in plot and visual terms. OK so what’s actually happening? We learn the truck was carrying Dr Franklin Hall (Ian Hart). Well interest just evaporated. This is a top-level S.H.I.E.L.D. boffin (the titular “Asset”) and these security-minded agents are trying to sneak him around the countryside inside a giant truck? What’s wrong with an anonymous car or a helicopter? Ah wait. He’s thought to be safer inside a giants truck being escorted by two black SUVs because bad guys won’t notice this convoy on empty country roads. Anyway, all this is irrelevant because the truck driver opines the route must have been leaked by a mole — the bad guys were waiting for them. To try maintaining interest, our team scientists, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), find a gizmo buried in the road. It does something to gravity. No-one knows how it’s controlled nor how dangerous it may be but they take it on board the Bus anyway (I can’t think why the kidnappers left it behind if it wasn’t to blow up the Bus).

Skip to Malta where we meet Ian Quinn (David Conrad), the week’s random rich megalomaniac who wants to rule the world, discussing terms of co-operation with the kidnapped “Asset”. They knew each other at university and now Quinn has found the theoretical rare earth appropriately called Gravitonium just in case we might forget what it does. With it powering a giant generator, they can takeover the world. I’m sure it will be news to international law agencies that Malta has been declared closed to all outside interference. Instead of requiring a suspension of disbelief over the radical change in Malta, the scriptwriters could have invented a small country where our megalomaniac could have his secret underground base. Anyway, under this version of Maltese law, any foreign agents captured on Maltese soil can be executed by firing squad. So Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) sends Skye (Chloe Bennet) to infiltrate — she’s the expendable one. At this point, the show rapidly devolves into a routine and boring plot where Skye has to active a widget inside the firewalled estate so the scientist types can hack the security perimeter and our two male agents can break in to rescue the kidnapped Asset. Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) is left on the bench and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) gets to fight for at least ten seconds. As a final thought on the plot, Malta is an island so where did they land the Bus for people to disembark? More to the point, how did they remove the 12 foot gizmo if Malta has a shoot-to-kill policy?

Franklin Hall (Ian Hart) aka Graviton

Franklin Hall (Ian Hart) aka Graviton

This is all being done with cardboard sets and token outdoor shoots. In other words, the show is being run on a shoestring. I know it’s unfair to expect the same level of SFX and CGI that we’ve seen in the Marvel films. That would be unrealistic. But even allowing for the scenes at the end of the episode, what we’re now being offered is no better than the shows made in the 1980s. I’m completely baffled at the strategy here. If Marvel wants to build up the strength of its franchise, why penny-pinch and produce a show that’s worse than average when a few more dollars and a little more care in the scripts could have produced something genuinely interesting? I can only assume the show’s producers were not that confident and therefore chose not to risk more dollars than necessary to test whether there was a market. The result will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. When you don’t spend on producing decent scrips with WOW-factor effects, your shows die.

What makes the show’s demise all the more likely has been the lack of any real development within the Marvel universe. There’s a massive array of plot lines and characters available for exploitation in the television version of the universe. Yet, making allowances for this only being the third episode, we’ve had two dire efforts and then this. The only redeeming feature in this episode is our introduction to Franklin Hall. Comic fans know him better as Graviton, a supervillain able to control gravity just by thinking about it. This is the first and only sign we may be going to move beyond the increasingly mawkish sentimentality of the team-building and develop a more real Marvel comic storyline. The only problem is that Graviton’s powers are superior to anything the prospective team can bring to the table. When he first starts to wield his powers in the Avenger comic series, it takes Thor to stop him. The idea our British science geeks could switch him off and dump him in an alternate dimension is laughable.

So Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Asset continues to scrape along the bottom of the barrel. I think I’ve just enough patience to watch one more. If it’s no better, I’ll quit.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4

October 3, 2013 2 comments

Marvels Agents of Shield

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 Episode 2. 0-8-4 comes with a health warning attached to it. Having begun with a ho-hum episode which had some style but little substance, the series must either raise its game or begin shedding viewers. The first and most obvious question marks arise over two features. The first is the running time of just over 40 minutes screen time. This is even less than usual for what’s billed as a one-hour show. All it does is show optimism over the ability to sell advertising before the quality of the show has been established. The second issue is the use of the extended flashback format, i.e. the crisis is shown up-front and then we switch back to nineteen hours earlier. This is one of my least favourite plotting devices. I see no benefit from revealing the fact of a midair explosion at the outset. It seems to me far more powerful if we’re being carried along by exciting events on the ground and then, when everything seems resolved and the team take-off, the explosion will come as a shock and a challenge to be overcome. There’s no benefit to removing the shock and defusing suspense. All we viewers do is wait for the bomb to go off again.

Well, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) has added Skye (Chloe Bennet) to the team as a consultant, “. . .because she doesn’t think like S.H.I.E.L.D agents”. What better way to have an outsider’s view of events than to recruit an outsider who can act as a buffer between the shoot-and-fight types, Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), and the science geeks, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge)? Now we’re off to investigate an “object of unknown origin” (Code-named 0-8-4) in Peru. The last one was a hammer as in Thor (2011) (big hint there that we might just be about to see something awesome or merely something cheap CGI can generate on a television episode budget — the suspense is killing). I’m beginning to find the British science geeks annoying. I suppose they are intended to be endearing with their endless enthusiasm for all things scientific, but I do wish they would shut down every now and then to think about basic issues like food and access to toilet facilities in a remote jungle location. This is particularly important when the national police troops come. The fighters are in their element, of course. The others may have a brown emission issue. But it turns out Coulson knows the babe in charge. It makes a change from having a stereotypical South American male authority figure.

No expense spared on the Bus

No expense spared on the Bus

Anyway, when rebels with guns also turn up, the gung-ho fighter picks up the object and makes a run for it. None of the scientific niceties for him when there are bullets flying and explosions outside the temple complex (so far no CGI — just flashing lights on the thingy). As if we needed the stakes raising, we’re still in Captain America territory with a piece of German technology which pumps out gamma radiation if provoked. Being thrown around during a chase has obviously not improved thingy’s mood. At this point, we get into plotting 101 with the most obvious possible sequence of events plodding across the screen. The simplest way to discuss this without spoilers is to say the outcome at the end of 40 minutes has to be a better team so, whatever happens, has to break down their mutual animosity and create a more co-operative spirit. This involves problem solving. Assume the individuals start out at a disadvantage and then have to work together to avoid the explosion bringing down the plane.

Samuel L Jackson puts in a cameo at the end to prove this is a real S.H.I.E.L.D show and then that’s the end of this week’s completely unexciting and uninvolving episode. I think I have one more episode in the tank. If it’s no better, I’ll go back to reading. PS I forgot to mention the aeroplane carrying this band of so far useless bodies is a CGI construct. The show’s producers have spared no expense to bring real excitement to the screen as the modified cargo plane lumbers across the sky.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 1. Pilot

September 26, 2013 3 comments

Marvels Agents of Shield

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (2013) Season 1, episode 1 is trying to do something inherently difficult. We have had decades of Marvel Comics and, more recently, successful films. To expand on the universe through a television show is asking a lot. First, it must be consistent with the universe as existing fans know it, but the episodes must be accessible to newcomers who think Marvel is a brand of powdered milk. It must also avoid trampling on the toes of the existing film franchise. It would be embarrassing if the television series accidentally foreshadowed some of the themes due to appear in the next film. Then there’s the problem of characters crossing over from the cinema to the small screen. Some of the stars of the big screen might be too expensive for a television production. And finally there’s a terrible burden of expectation. Of late, the film producers have managed to reinvigorate the Marvel universe. It will be a challenge to the television producers on a smaller budget to maintain the standard.

So how does the first episode play out? Well the first mountain or molehill depending on your point of view is the survival of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). He’s been the right-hand person to Nick Fury in both Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012) but, in the latter film, he died. Except here he is and, immediately the writers confront the elephant on the screen and give an explanation. Then, when he’s not in hearing range, the “people-in-the-know” say they hope he never finds out what actually happened. Yeh, well, it’s a solution. So Agent Coulson is back in the saddle and putting together a team to deal with all the new weird stuff after the Battle of New York in the film. This means Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) drives the bus, Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) is the good-looking one who fights well but is not overendowed in the brain department, Skye (Chloe Bennet) is the superduper hacker, Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) is a geek and one half of the science team with Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge).marvels_agents_of_shield_640_large_verge_medium_landscape

The first thing to note is the international character of the team. The science division is British (they ask for less money to ply their trade than comparable American talent) while the bus driver is from Macau with exposure in Hong Kong (even cheaper). This keeps down costs and spreads the distribution load because although Chloe Bennet was born in Chicago, her father is Chinese and she already has a mainland Chinese fan base thanks to her international singing career. This is television program marketing 101. Always cram in as many different racial and cultural groups as possible when casting.

Now on to the plot. This must necessarily be thin because we’re in team gathering mode and meeting the cast is more important than any meat in the plot — that can come in later episodes. So we’re in supersoldier territory courtesy of Captain America. The potential hero in this episode has been treated with some of the still unstable physical enhancer. As in other plots, people with this type of chemical in their bloodstream can literally explode. Fortunately, with an all-British science team on the job, it’s the work of only five minutes of screen time for them to find a way of defusing the bomb. Such are the wonders of British science in the Marvel universe. Frankly, the ending is overly sentimental and feel good. The whole point of Marvel is that not everyone can be saved. I hope this is not a precedent for future episodes. This has all been too easy. Yes it had fun moments and some of the special effects are quite cool, but when it came down to the basic plot mechanics, we were in cliché territory most of the time. This means I’m in holding mode. I can see some potential in the team members, but the initial performances were of neutral quality. For now, they are devices being moved around for the convenience of the plot. If the scripts allow them to come to life and they have some complexity, the series may become watchable. All we can do is wait and see.

For a review of other episodes, see:
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 2. 0-8-4
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 3. The Asset
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 4. Eye-Spy
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 5. Girl in the Flower Dress
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 6. FZZT
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013) Season 1, episode 7. The Hub.

After Earth by Peter David

after-earth

After Earth by Peter David (Del Rey, 2013) is a film novelisation adapting the script by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith, a species of books I only bother with when I’m interested in the author. Since I’m something of a fan of the series featuring Sir Apropos of Nothing, I decided to read this — if I have the time, I’ll also watch the film to see how it compares. This is the story of Kitai Raige, son of Cypher Raige, the first man able to ghost. At this point, I’m going to diverge from book and film to talk about relevant parallels. When I was young, A E Van Vogt was considered very impressive. He’s another of the authors where I achieved completion. Anyway, my feeble memory recalls the story “Co-operate Or Else” which has Professor Jamieson stranded on an inhospitable planet and hunted by a predatory six-legged alien. It’s one of a species called the ezwall and was later fixed up as part of The War Against the Rull. I mention this because Van Vogt also wrote The Voyage of the Space Beagle which was allegedly the source of the plot for the seminal film, Alien. While I’m not suggesting the team behind After Earth has copied “Co-operate Or Else”, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Anyway, the alien species in this film, which humans call the Ursa, has been bioengineered to track and kill humans. This is all rather strange. In the film Pitch Black, which is terrific entertainment, we have an alien species go through entire reproductive cycle during what passes for night on this planet. The scent of blood attracts them to the humans and light repels them. They are adapted to virtual sightlessness (light frightens them for some reason), relying on a form of radar to move around and detect prey. So these Ursa have been adapted to detect the “smell of fear”. The humans speculate the creators of these predators are themselves sightless, engineering these predators in their own image. As an idea, this is actually quite ingenious, but it seems to me it has a serious defect. The alien species in Pitch Black has multiple mechanisms for navigating both on the ground and in the air. This makes it particularly dangerous. But, on paper, the Ursa seem not very well equipped to move around. Obviously they cannot see. . . but there’s no suggestion they blunder into trees or fall off cliffs. Indeed, once they get the scent, they are fixed on a given “prey animal”, and ignore others around them until the one selected is dead. Quite how they decide the prey is dead is not explained. Perhaps they can hear the heart stop beating. No wait, that can’t be right.

Peter David

Peter David

At this point I need to explain the phenomenon of ghosting. A human who develops a powerful control over his or her emotions, can become invisible to the Ursa, i.e. the body of these individuals stops secreting the chemicals associated with fear. A ghost can physically walk up to an Ursa and get nothing more than a puzzled reaction. This is convenient because the bioengineers have built in some tough defences for their creatures. But if you can get close enough, you can stick your magic blade in through the cracks and deliver a fatal blow. In Pitch Black, Riddick ghosts a large predator, i.e. stands in front of one and is not detected. This is explained. The alien has radar projectors on either side of its substantial skull and Riddick is able to stand absolutely stationary in a blind spot directly in front of it. When the alien moves, it sees the human in the same way it might detect a utility pole, i.e. as a narrow inanimate object. Yet the Ursa seem not to be able to detect a human by any means other than the scent of fear. The tactics for fighting one are therefore interesting. Teams of eight surround one of the beasts. Once it imprints on one, the other seven are then free to close in on the beast and kill it. Except, of course, once seven humans start pricking it with their blades, this beast gets not a little upset and, with six paws to strike out with and a head full of teeth, it can randomly disable the attackers without directly perceiving them. So it can feel when it’s pricked, and it can find doors and walk through them, but it can’t detect a human unless it’s afraid. It seems these alien bioengineers have gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture a predator that’s severely handicapped. When the bioengineers were developing the chameleon-like ability to camouflage to the point of invisibility, you would think they would have given their beasts more sensory input and tracking skills.

As a standalone novel, Peter David has done a good job in providing a context for the main action. We have a wealth of backstory on the ironically named Raige clan — they do get worked up sometimes but stay calm in a crisis. They are natural leaders who manage both to inspire confidence in the people they lead and to show powerful intellectual abilities. It’s thanks to their commitment that the best of Earth leaves the planet and settles on multiple worlds. When the aliens turn up and start releasing Ursa to drive us away, they organise the defence and, ultimately, develop the right mental state to ghost the Ursa. Not surprisingly, the tiny percentage of people who can successfully ghost have either spent generations breeding for the possibility or have been psychologically predisposed not to show fear. They are cold fish and this explains why the father and son in this film have this strange relationship. As an action adventure, I can visualise what this must look like on screen and it’s one cliché after another. This is not Peter David’s fault. He’s just picking up the money to write the novelisation. I was interested in the overarching context but found the immediate adventure, coming-of-age plot tedious.

There are three short stories bound into the volume by Robert Greenberger, Michael Jan Friedman and Peter David. The second by Friedman is the best thing in the book, asking and answering the question of what might happen if humans decided to modify the brain of one of their soldiers so that he could ghost. This is a natural progression from the aliens bioengineering their predators. Why can’t humans modify themselves to fight back? There’s a lot of cod psychology on display throughout and I find myself relieved I did not pay to see this film on a big screen. Assuming the book to be an accurate version of the story, it’s not worth seeing but I might watch it anyway for comparative purposes.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Bride Box by Michael Pearce

August 2, 2013 1 comment

Bride Box by Michael Pearce

My own experience demonstrates that reactions to older people are generally quite negative. Our culture is built on a number of stereotypes portraying the ageing process as something to be feared. This leads to a form of willful blindness. The young prefer not to improve their knowledge and understanding of what it’s like to be old. Assumptions and prejudices therefore bedevil intergenerational relations. This makes it interesting to see an older author at work — I gave Michael Peace a few years head start but we both continue to work and write as pensioners. It’s useful confirmation to the world that at least in his case, if not mine, intelligent life continues after retirement age and should offer an opportunity for society to re-evaluate the social desirability of continuing to treat the elderly so dismissively.

I grew up reading books like The Four Feathers by A E W Mason. More recently, we’ve had books like The Triumph of the Sun by Wilbur Smith. Both these books and other historical adventure novels of their type look at the problems in the relationships between the British, the Egyptians and the Sudanese during the later Victorian and earlier Edwardian periods. The Mamur Zapt Mysteries, of which this is the seventeenth, began at the turn of the century with the situation still volatile but marginally more stable than it had been during the military campaigns to subdue the Sudan. The Bride Box by Michael Pearce (Severn House, 2013) has now advanced to 1913. In some senses, little has changed for Gareth Cadwallader Owen, The Mamur Zapt, Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police. He arrived in Cairo to deal with gun smuggling and political assassination. This time round, we’re still dealing with gun smuggling, the politically inclined Pashas continue to manoeuvre for position, and slavery has not yet been stamped out. The factionalism within Egyptian society remains a problem as different groups try to decide what future they want to aim for. Pivotal is the tension between the core Islamic constituency with the madrassas fostering a more radical approach, and the Euro-centric, better educated classes who see the relative sophistication of the British and French as an inspiration. Underlying all this is the powerful racism that colours the relationship between the north and south, and taints the view of Sudan. When you add in the institutionalised colonial racism from the British, you have a dangerous sea of cultural eddies for Owen to navigate. Since his role is essentially political, he finds himself increasingly isolated — a trend encouraged by the fact he’s Welsh and would rather not be identified as being on the side of the English in all matters.

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

Michael Pearce as a bright young thing

An early moment nicely captures the ghastly racism of colonial times as Fraser, an engineer on the Egyptian railways, finds an injured young Egyptian girl. Rather than deal with her properly, he takes her to a nearby refuge for sick animals run by Miss Skiff. In turn, she takes the girl to Owen. Since the girl’s story confirms the reappearance of slavers, this directly interests him because it would suggest political influence is being used to give the traders cover. However, matters become altogether more serious when the young girl’s sister turns up dead in her own bride box at Cairo railway terminal. Since her body is addressed to one of the Pashas, the political implications are potentially dangerous. This leads both Owen and Mahmoud el Zaki of the Parquet legal service to travel south to the area where the girls lived. What follows is a very interesting meditation on the nature of the relationships within a family, how that scales up to a kin group, and what loyalties and ties may form within the wider community of traditional Islam. At the centre of this is a young man who suffers a relatively minor intellectual disorder. Fathers are always disappointed when their sons are less than perfect. Mothers are always protective of their children when practical and emotional needs are greater. So how should parents react in 1913 when psychology is in its infancy? Even today, there’s considerable misunderstanding and prejudice. In colonial Egypt, the chances of “error” were significantly greater.

Some of you might worry that this book is slightly shorter than the novels written by today’s younger authors. Fear not. This has very clean narrative lines and carefully defined themes, managing to pack a police procedural, a political thriller, an historical novel, and a simple adventure story into an author box wrapped in a discussion of racial and political tensions affecting a young man with a mental disability. It’s a thought-provoking and very entertaining read.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham

Balfour_and_Meriwether_in_the_Incident_of_the_Harrowmoor_Dogs_270_396

Nostalgia is a very strange beast. Many would have you believe that it’s a kind of sentimental attachment to the past — a romanticised and highly selective viewing of the past through rose-tinted spectacles. I would prefer to think of it as a mere acknowledgement of the volume of memories that occupy the mind. These are the times I’ve lived through, good and bad. When it comes to literature in the broadest sense of the word, I’ve been putting eyeballs to paper for more than sixty years and have seen stylistic fashions come and go. When I first began to take an active interest in fiction, some Victorian and a considerable volume of early Edwardian work was still very much in vogue. I suppose I cut my teeth on British adventure and American hardboiled when my reading really took off in the 1950s. Not that the two are even remotely compatible, but I still recall the highlights. At their best, there was an eerie blend of naïveté and violence. No-one stopped to think very hard about the morality of what was being done. Expediency and a stiff upper lip were the only requirements when deciding what was needed. I miss the uncritical simplicity of those days. Life was so much easier when you could shoot first and, if the mood came upon you, ask questions afterwards.

All of which brings me to The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs by Daniel Abraham (Subterranean Press, 2013), a novella featuring Balfour and Meriwether, two chips off the British block of Empire. For the record, this is the third in an emerging series which began with The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance and continued with The Vampire of Kabul. Seeing two names on the tentpole, it’s tempting to characterise this as a Sherlock Holmes pastiche but that’s definitely not what’s intended here. Although there are books where Mr Holmes takes on Dracula, Dr Jekyll and divers other creatures of Earth, then moves on to fight the War of the Worlds and to crossover into Cthulhu Mythos territory, this does not feature a detective blessed with deductive reasoning skills with a sidekick companion for light relief. Rather this pair who share accommodation are more in the Allan Quartermain mould where the response to danger is to shoot it and, when the bullets run out, hack at it with a conveniently-to-hand knife. Although they obviously do think, it’s not what we’re supposed to be interested in.

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

Daniel Abraham using Victorian black and white photography

So here comes a rather sly, tongue-in-cheek adventure story set in 188-, with a representative of the British Government coming to King Street to ask for a little assistance with a slightly delicate matter. It seems one of the men who work for the Empire has gone missing. He was supposed to make a simple journey to Harrowmoor to talk with an inmate of the local Sanitarium. Worryingly, there’s been no word of him since. Of course, since the British Government is asking, this can’t be a simple matter otherwise the local police force would be asked to investigate. With typical Britishness, Lord Carmichael doesn’t say what the problem is and our heroes don’t ask. When your country calls, you dare not refuse her. What follows is great fun as our pair ride a specially commissioned train to Harrowmoor. Having established a base in a local inn, one sets off to the Sanitarium, the other in search of word of the missing agent. In due course, they meet up for the big climax.

The essence of good fantasy is that you combine some level of credibility with a complete disregard for reality. As the White Queen fondly recalls, it’s good to be able to believe in six impossible things before breakfast, and having been fortified with plenty of food, rather more impossible things before lunch. So this is definitely not Baskervillian dogs nor are we into the Hounds of Tindalos. This is all pleasingly different and explains perfectly why Her Majesty’s Government might be a little reluctant to explain to our heroes what might be going on. I romped through this and now wait for more of the same. Even though it may be nostalgic in tone to me, this is sufficiently modern to pass muster for the new generation of readers. The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs is recommended.

Dust jacket illustration by David Palumbo.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield

Saving-Laura-No-Background

If a reviewer is bold enough to describe a writing style as simple, this is often taken as a criticism. The reason, I suppose, is that children write short sentences, often avoiding the use of long words, and few would call their work “literature”. So, over the years, a pejorative meaning has come to be attached to the use of the word. Yet, of course, some writers are famous for the simplicity of their writing style, praised for what critics call minimalism in language, i.e. distilling everything down to the bare minimum required to say what you mean or avoiding the use of any words deemed unnecessary (or redundant) (sic). So in Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) we go with a first-person narrative set in 1979 and written in a very simple style. Although we’re told at the end that this account of events was written much later in the author’s life, most of the time we’re left to believe this is a contemporaneous account of his “adventures” by Lee Shelby, a twenty-one year old English major with a liking for Ernest Hemingway. Now before you get your hopes up, this is not even remotely like the Hemingway style. But the approach is similar in spirit, i.e. the text is structured in short paragraphs and wherever possible, short sentences. The vocabulary is mostly simple but, because we’re often on the run and under pressure, the English is quite vigorous and forceful. So the result avoids being plain by virtue of its simplicity. The directness means the plot is moved quickly along and the thriller qualities are enhanced.

However, style on its own is never enough. There must be sufficient sustenance in the plot to satisfy the reader. The problem actually comes from the writing style. If you strip out all the superfluous, that means you’re leaving out all those interesting little details and asides that can add character to the book. Sometimes passages of description setting the scene or sketching the people involved add an extra dimension to the text by rounding it out. And, to my mind, that’s where this book is a little shaky. In essence what we have is a young man driven to rash acts out of love. Without thinking too clearly how this will all play out in the future, our heroic idiot robs a drug dealer as he’s buying 5 kilos of Peruvian flake, and makes off with both the drugs and the $75,000 purchase price. He’s thought far enough ahead to plan where to hide except nothing quite works out as he hopes. The accumulating problems force him back to the scene of the crime and we follow him as he tries to save himself (and Laura, the girl he loves).

Jim Satterfield

Jim Satterfield

As a plot idea, this is great for a back-of-the-envelope pitch to movie moguls. There are legends about people selling ideas but then failing to deliver in the detail. In this case, the hero’s inexperience means he’s completely at sea. The only way he can therefore get back to shore is by relying on other people to help him. Although the first person in this daisy chain is more or less in his plan from the outset, most everything else that happens is through coincidence or accident. People prove unexpectedly helpful and skillful, there are ferocious animals that (in)conveniently maim and kill (yes, there’s real drama), and the legal system ends up getting bent out of shape to accommodate what our hero and all his helpers did (and they broke a lot of laws). I’m not saying it’s all unrealistic. Taken as individual episodes, life can sometimes work out like this. But once it’s all accumulated into a single plot, the whole feels very contrived. Take the question of animals as a hypothetical example. If an author introduces a skunk, the odds are it will spray out noxious substances at some point. That’s what the stereotype does if it feels threatened. For me, this is a real problem. As a backstory, the author may legitimately feel obliged to explain why his fifty-year old protagonist is called Skunk Boy (it was an unfortunate incident on the way to school that blighted his life). But if the skunk befriends the boy and, when a school bully approaches, the skunk runs forward and sprays the bully, the response of the reader is rather different. Now how are we to react when, later in the same book, the author introduces a parrot that can make the noise of a gun being fired? This is not deus but animals ex machina. You’ll be relieved to know there are no skunks or noisy birds in this novel, but you get the idea.

If I can’t take pleasure in the prose, I look for satisfaction in seeing a good plot well executed. Sadly Saving Laura falls on the wrong side of the plot line. That said, you may well enjoy this simple and sometimes quite elegant prose enough to carry you through a slightly thin thriller plot. Your choice.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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