Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Leviathan Trilogy: A Whale of a Good Read

When I walk into a bookshop, my first stop is usually the Young Adult shelves. Regardless of target audience, it’s the place whence the finest examples of fantasy literature seem to appear.

With that in mind, I just finished Goliath, last part of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy. In addition to being Young Adult fiction, it’s also alternate history, a genre I have fairly limited experience of.

The year is 1914, and Germany has just declared war on Britain. However, instead of imperial tensions driving the conflict, the two factions are split by their technological doctrines.

On the one hand, we have the Central Powers – Germany, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – known as ‘Clankers’ who use ‘mechaniks,’ basing their military and infrastructure on steampunk-style machinery a bit like Imperial Walkers that run on boiling water and coal.

Meanwhile, the Triple Entente – Britain, France and Russia – are ‘Darwinists.’ Society replaces most machinery with ‘beasties’ fabricated from the ‘life threads’ of natural creatures. Krakens take the place of submarines, a massive global nerve network replaces the telegraph service and zeppelins are substituted with aerial whales, massive ‘hydrogen-breathing’ ships filled with an artificial ecosystem of attack birds, messenger lizards, and watchdogs.

In the first book, Leviathan, Deryn Sharp, a teenaged Scotswoman and experienced balloonist, has disguised herself as a man to become a midshipman aboard the airship Leviathan. Said airship takes aboard Dr. Barlow of the Zoological Society, an expert in life thread fabrication and granddaughter of Darwin himself. They are setting out on a secret mission to Constantinople; Dr. Barlow brings aboard a mysterious cargo as a bribe to keep the Turks from coming in on the side of the Germans.

Meanwhile, word of the declaration of war reaches the young Austrian Prince Aleksandar when he is taken by his mentors aboard a land ship at the dead of night. His parents, Archduke Ferdinand and his commoner wife have been secretly assassinated by Alek’s granduncle, the Emperor. Ferdinand opposed war and also received a letter from the Pope granting Alek a place in the line of succession, making him a pretender to the throne. The plan, to Alek’s dismay, is to flee to Switzerland and wait until the aged Emperor dies, so Alek can claim the throne and save the day.

Alek and Deryn meet when the Leviathan is damaged near his hideout by German attackers. Against his mentors’ wishes, he aids them and ends up helping repair the ship, but German attack forces Alek to join the suspicious British crew of the Leviathan on their mission.

In the second book, Behemoth, Alek and Deryn become friends as Alek tries to find a place for himself in the Leviathan. A tangled web made of the plans of Alek’s domineering guardian, Dr. Barlow’s secret mission and Deryn and Alek’s mutual conflict between duty and friendship is woven against a backdrop of political scheming in the Ottoman capital. Alek and Deryn go their separate ways, only to be thrown together again in a dangerous plan to break the Ottoman Empire free of the forces trying to draw it into the war. Alek, unwilling to hide away while others fight, plays the public opinion game with the help of a shady American reporter. As their friendship deepens, Deryn struggles with her last great secret and her growing attraction to Alek.

The third novel, Goliath, sees the Leviathan cruising over Russia, and taking aboard a Russian expedition led by the famous Clanker turncoat Nikola Tesla. Tesla has a grand, possibly totally mad scheme to end the war, and possibly all wars, but at what cost? Alek, keen to find a way to stop his people being killed, eagerly supports Tesla, but both his teacher and Dr. Barlow are sceptical. After Tesla receives Admiralty backing, the Leviathan carries him to America. Alek and Deryn’s friendship is sorely tested by mishap and revelation, and must stand up to a great crisis as Tesla’s plan threatens millions of lives in the name of peace, while America balances on the edge of entering the war.

As I said, alternate history is terra incognita to me, but this could not have been a better introduction. Much like C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower stories, the action of the trilogy takes place away from the main historical events, but has an important impact nevertheless. While it’s too bad in a way that there are so few epic battles, it’s refreshing to see a World War I story that involves intrigue, adventure and derring-do abroad instead of the misery and horror of the Western Front. I always found my World War I lessons at school rather annoying because from them it sounded as if this ‘World War’ occurred almost entirely down a hole in Belgium. The Leviathan Trilogy almost reads like military travel literature, with the places travelled to at once fascinating and new and recognizably classic. Historical characters like Tesla, Churchill and William Randolph Hearst affect our heroes’ experiences even as events get steered down a new road.

The real kicker is the characterization. The conflict between doing the logical thing and doing the right thing is classic to military fiction, and Alek and Deryn both approach it in their own ways, but both have to answer similar questions: what comes first, your agenda or your friends? Which is more important, being a good soldier or being a good human being? Alek has his duty and ideals to juggle against his personal sense of right and wrong, while Deryn has to reconcile honesty to her friends with the desire to do her duty and live her own life. The conflicts are genuinely touching and my throat definitely tightened up in the finale.

If the story lacks for anything, it’s details in the world-building. The nature of the setting – the mobile and airborne Leviathan, means it’s hard to get a handle on just what sort of world we’re living in. The full applications and practical differences between Clanker and Darwinist society outside of the military is never explored very extensively, although tantalising hints abound. On the other hand, not telling too much, such as exactly how life thread fabrication works, adds mystique to the story that helps draw you in. Some it feels a bit slapdash though; in particular, even though the Pope has pull over the Clanker royalty (who call the Darwinists ‘godless’ many times) Italy is referred to as a Darwinist nation, which doesn’t make much sense beyond the fact that, despite what my schoolbooks claimed, Italy was an ally of Britain in the Great War. I would have been perfectly fine with Italy being neutral or switching sides, or just being the exception to the Clanker vs. Darwinist rule in the interest of keeping this consistent.

In general, however, the Leviathan Trilogy was a lot of fun. It isn’t very dense or profound, which may disappoint older readers, but the action is thrilling, the story is beautiful and the plot is surprisingly intricate. The world is delightfully original, reminding me of the Golden Compass or Nation crossed with A Series of Unfortunate Events if it took itself seriously. My only major complaint is that there isn’t enough of it. The world is so tantalizingly rich that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more books, although 2013 promises the release of a supplemental illustrated book about the setting. Throw in the wonderful illustrations interspersed through the text by artist Keith Thompson and you have a recipe for a shining, if seemingly under-appreciated jewel of a read. I highly recommend it.

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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Book


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The Dark Knight Rises: A Thrilling Conclusion

*Caution: Minor, Veiled Spoilers*

Last night I was privileged to see Chris Nolan’s conclusion to his reboot of the Batman film franchise: the Dark Knight Rises.

Nolan has come out top of the heap in the last decade’s trend of adapting comic book franchises to film. Compared to when Tim Burton started the first Hollywood take on Batman, which started out over-the-top and rapidly deteriorated into idiotic, Nolan has approached Batman from the gritty, realistic and morally grayer direction which is really the character’s natural habitat.

In this chapter, Bruce Wayne has been a shut-in for years since the death of fallen hero Harvey Dent, and Gotham City is in relative peace. However, a burglary by one Selina Kyle, alias Catwoman, alerts him to something new in the air. Gotham is about to come under attack by the fanatic followers of Bane, a mysterious masked terrorist with an agenda hearkening back to the plot of Batman Begins.

Batman has to make a comeback, having to fend off the police (who still think he killed Harvey Dent) and negotiate the loyalty of Catwoman, who has her own agenda. Ultimately it comes down to a showdown between Bane and Batman, but Bane may turn out to be the Dark Knight’s match. The risks taken cost Wayne much in his health and his personal life as he prepares to face death in the fight for Gotham’s survival.

If it seems I’m hyping the epicness of the movie, it’s because the epicness is hard to overstate.

The story is incredibly suspenseful and heartwrending, as the personal cost of heroism and of generally giving a damn is shown in a high-stakes situation. Michael Caine’s performance reflects it best (but then again, he’s Michael Caine) but Christian Bale, who has been accused of being a rather wooden actor, is giving an above-average show of energy and emotion in this movie. The fact that Gary Oldman does a fantastic show of Commissioner Gordon’s stoutness of purpose, moral conflict and personal courage is, likewise, not a surprise since this is Gary Oldman, after all. Tom Hardy’s performance as Bane, while an occasional struggle to understand through that mask, is absolutely terrifying. Dry, cheerful villainy seems to be his strong point, because I was scared out of my wits by his polite discourse on his plans of destruction, which, filtered through that mask, made him sound like a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. Besides which, he’s about three times the size he was when last I saw him…

Catwoman’s character makes a neat middle-ground between them and it reinforces the theme of redemption and making choices in the fight against evil that has been one of the strongest ones in the entire trilogy. She also has genuine depth and power and isn’t just there for sex appeal (although there is no shortage of that), and she isn’t just used for the dull ‘temptation into darkness’ plots the character has driven in the past.

The action sequences are much improved upon. They’re a return to form, with Batman’s combat style going back to the attack-from-the-shadows, evasive and theatrical approach that was so thrilling in Batman Begins. The first time Batman appeared on the scene, I was genuinely startled, as in ‘Whoa! Batman just showed up!’ The Dark Knight lacked that somewhat and I was glad to see it return.

There are a few faults in the story, as anything with stakes as high as a final chapter has. Nolan’s been very good at establishing internal rules and guidelines for the universe that make sense (if sometimes only in movie-logic) and sticking to them. However one of the more intriguing plot points – exactly why Bane wears his mask – has a slightly contrived, take-our-word-for-it sense about it which is jarring. I feel like it would have been fine to stick to a version of his original backstory, wherein the character uses a strength-enhancing compound to rile himself up for a fight.

The period right before the climax drags on a little. Nevertheless some good groundwork is laid down for the climax and for the theme of confronting fear, brought back from Batman Begins to be settled at last. At one stage we are granted a view of Bane’s personal prison, a place described throughout the film as a dark, despair-ridden circle of hell, which turns out to be mostly boring rather than violent and quite well-lit to boot. I had to laugh because the mines of Remus, home and birthplace of Tom Hardy’s character Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis looked more like the place described than this did. On a related note, I feel that the theme of Batman as the nighttime guardian against the true darkness is undercut badly because the final battle takes place during the day. I can’t say more without spoiling, but some fine symbolic opportunities were missed as a result and Batman frankly looks absurd standing in the street in broad daylight

Bane’s plot of bringing about Gotham’s destruction is drawn out, partly to torture Batman, but several threads of his plan don’t seem to compute with one another all that well, so that I can’t tell what exactly he is trying to achieve in all this. That, of course, might be a problem at my end. It gets a little uncomfortable, though, since if you look at it from the right (actually, almost certainly the wrong angle) it looks like a vilification of popular resistance and class struggle. I feel Batman and V would not get on well.

Anyway, these issues aside, the movie was utterly first class. Hans Zimmer’s musical score (which I’m actually listening to as I write) carries its weight in the story. The themes of courage, choice, freedom and the meaning of heroism are explored and settled in a manner consistent with the way they’ve been carried through all three movies, and the ending can easily choke you up. It’s a long, emotionally demanding and exhilarating final journey for this version of a beloved character, with actors and music well matched to the task.


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Posted by on July 21, 2012 in Movie


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The Apocalypse Codex: the Latest Load of Laundry

Comic Fantasy, Comic Science Fiction, even Comic Detective Stories, these we understand. What is less easy to anticipate is Comic Horror. Nevertheless, there is at least one series on the shelves that excels in it.

The Apocalypse Codex is the fourth installment of Stross’s Laundry Files novels, featuring Bob Howard, a geeky technician and ‘computational demonologist,’ working for the Laundry, the secret arm of British Intelligence tasked with protecting humankind from supernatural alien horrors.

In the first book, the Atrocity Archives, Bob is confronted with an apocalyptic plot left over from the occult machinations of the Third Reich, and must struggle against the mind-racking torment of matrix management.

In the sequel, the Jennifer Morgue, Bob is sent to the Caribbean to infiltrate the inner circle of a charismatic billionaire and find out the nature of the eldritch wreckage at the sea bottom that so interests him.

In the Fuller Memorandum, Bob’s adventures take on a bleaker tone as the event codenamed CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is finally at hand, and conspiracies hatched in worlds beyond ours threaten humankind and Bob’s own nearest and dearest.

The Laundry Files take place in a Lovecraftian world. I’ll devote a special article to what that means exactly, but in summary it deals in the horror of humanity’s insignificance in the cosmic scale of things. Indeed, it is actually known as Cosmic Horror. It’s a genre haunted by the unknowable and the unseen, stressing the horror of being caught in the gaze of something so vast and alien that it could be standing right behind you in a totally empty room.

This is not, you’d think, a natural habitat for humour. Stross, however, manages to mesh the two. His secret, it seems to me, is the juxtaposition of the monsters that the Laundry exists to fight, and the fact that however bizarre its function, it’s still a civil service branch with all the paperwork, IT infrastructure and committee oversight that necessarily entails. Because of the unique nature of the work done by the Laundry, the banal bureaucracy and eldritch sorcery also have to collide in unexpected ways regarding things like security and procedure. The fact that paperclip audits, much joked about, turn out to be immensely critical in the Fuller Memorandum is a good illustration of this.

Stross, like Terry Pratchett (of whom he is an ardent fan) also derives humour from sendups of the customs of the kinds of stories he tells. The Jennifer Morgue in particular makes light of many of the tropes of spy thrillers. The difference between what real spywork is like versus the romanticized idea of it (a la James Bond) is a running gag.

Geek culture is the third prong of the comedy pitchfork, with references to Discworld, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Apple and others peppering the text.

For all of this, however, the fact that Bob is a geeky computer guy faced with forces powerful enough to devastate humanity or even the entire universe also manages to be genuinely scary. The sense of some unseen dread constantly at hand makes Bob’s comedic dithering also serve as his coping mechanism, and some of the things he and his combat epistemologist wife have to take on are gut-twistingly horrific. In this context, their happy domestic life is both heartwarming and deeply tragic. This peaked with the Fuller Memorandum, although it has by no means gone away in the Apocalypse Codex.

In this new installment, Bob is still recovering from the previous book’s ordeal, even as he’s sent into the field against another cell of the same forces that nearly got him killed then. His, and the Laundry’s, worst fears are realized, that the forces of darkness may have infiltrated into the highest echelons of government, and Bob is forced into a line of black ops outside even the Laundry’s usual realm of plausible deniability. Put in oversight of two ‘outside contractors,’ something which, by definition, the Laundry isn’t supposed to have, he’s sent to the USA to investigate the abnormal influence an evangelical preacher seems to have even among the great and the good of Whitehall.

This is the first time Stross has carried an arc through more than one book. We’ve entered a ‘mythology episode’ phase here, in much the same way that J.K. Rowling eventually dropped the episodic, start-from-scratch storytelling of Harry Potter from roughly book five onward, getting directly to the heart of the matter. Like Harry Potter, there’s always been a Big Bad informing events, but rather than a person, it’s an event, CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, which is growing increasingly imminent with only the past two books dealing with it directly. It is, in brief, the apocalypse, and because it is drawing nigh, it looks as though the stories are going to be built around it from here on out.

The introduction of an ongoing arc was well-timed. Any more standalone adventures would have seemed dull at this point. I think that the Apocalypse Codex is suffering from a mild case of middle-chapter-ness, though. It’s much more plot-driven than character-driven. Stross seldom broke away from the point of view of Bob in the first books. Even when he did, he seldom went beyond those close to him. In this one, perspective rotates between him, his two contract agents, his managers and even the villains. It smacks of the same trend David Weber has been exhibiting with the Honor Harrington novels, spending progressively less time with the main character in the pursuit of a bigger scope. It’s impressive in terms of storytelling, but it’s harder to connect with when we seem to be losing sight of the people we’ve been following up ‘til now. The core cast of the first books was Bob, his wife Mo, and their cheekily sinister boss Angleton. In this book, Mo is barely present, as are Bob’s personal gadget-meisters, Pinky and Brains. Angleton takes quite a while to commence his usual puppeteering of events, and Bob spends a lot of the story in a passive role while new characters do the legwork. Indeed, given their record to date, I can’t quite understand why this couldn’t have been a husband-and-wife mission with Bob and Mo in the front lines together. I also feel that giving the villains POV time dinged the mystique critical to this style of horror a little bit.

Nonetheless, the new characters were pretty interesting people in their own right, and while Mo was in the background, certain moments suggested groundwork being laid for big payoffs down the line. The tone of the story is definitely grimmer since the Fuller Memorandum, but the humour is still there, albeit dried out a bit, and this story dialled the horror back down to merely ‘spooky.’ The actual story had a back-to-the-wall, fight-the-bad-guys vim to it that made it satisfying to read, and the suspense factor held my attention raptly. I didn’t like it as much as the others, but it was by no means bad and it’s still well worth sticking with the series.

I read the first three books in exactly the reverse of their publication order, so feel free to pick them up as they come, although the Apocalypse Codex is probably best appreciated if you read the Fuller Memorandum first. The Atrocity Archives and the Jennifer Morgue also have novellas published with them and there are more of those besides. They’re all great. I don’t think there’s any series I’ve reread as many times as I have the Laundry Files. Some background in Cosmic Horror is useful but not necessary. The first two books and the novellas especially will be more accessible if you have at least a basic grasp of computer and business jargon. Regardless, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll shudder in dread, and you’ll have a damned good mystery to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.


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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Book


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