Hell Train by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2012)

England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).

Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.

Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.

It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.

The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.

I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

This review was originally published in Vector 273 (October 2013)

Misspent Youth by Peter F. Hamilton (Pan Macmillan, 2002)

In a relatively short space of time Peter F Hamilton has established himself as one of today’s bestselling British SF authors, due in no small part to the Night’s Dawn trilogy. This success has given him the freedom to explore new territories, and his latest novel marks an admirable departure from his usual fare. Unfortunately enough, Misspent Youth isn’t very good.

Misspent Youth tells the story of an aged scientist, Jeff Baker, who is chosen as the first recipient of a newly developed rejuvenation treatment. Baker’s work on data storage technology led to the creation of the Internet’s successor, the Datasphere, and so he is considered to be worthy of the extravagent expense that is entailed. After eighteen months in a German clinic, Baker emerges as a seventy year old man in a twenty year old’s body and is determined to make the most of his regained vitality. His teenage son, Tim, bears the brunt of his inconsiderate actions and must deal with the consequences of Baker’s wish-fulfillment. Set against the background of a federal Europe under threat from separatist terrorists, the Baker family’s upheavals may have further reaching consequences than anyone could have predicted.

Using the perspectives of both Tim and Jeff to narrate the story, with occasional interludes from Tim’s girlfriend Annabelle, Hamilton contrasts the angst of Tim’s teenage years with the hedonism of Jeff’s second youth. Jeff has been there and done that before, and this time around he is fully intent on enjoying himself without the crutch of inexperience. Tim has no such wisdom to his name and so lurches from crisis to crisis as he desperately strives to be accepted as one of the guys. In the initial stages this works quite well and it’s enjoyable to watch Tim adapt in the wake of the havoc wreacked by Jeff and to empathise with his concerns, even if they are of the teen soap variety.

In comparison, the character of Jeff does not bear up so well in the face of close scrutiny. Jeff’s reaction to his new found youth is limited to alienating his old friends and sleeping with every woman he meets, including many of Tim’s classmates, who are as one-dimensional and devoid of substance as Jeff himself. His attempt to rejoin the scientific community and continue his research is sketched out almost as an afterthought, whilst his musings over his earlier success imply that science is more about luck than hard work and dedication and so there’s no point to it once you’ve made your money. The description of Jeff’s life after rejuvenation centers wholly around sex and only scratches the surface of what could have been achieved with the premise of a man in search of a new purpose to his extended life. After a few chapters of Jeff’s exploits, it becomes clear that the plot is going to center around Jeff and Tim falling out and their reconcilation. Other than the lurid sex scenes, this pretty much sums up the entire story.

One of the advantages of using a near-future setting is that less effort is diverted towards the worldbuilding and so one can concentrate on the characters and the story. This does not mean that the background can lack credibility in any way and this is the case here and it is doubly so when the characters and story lack depth. Hamilton’s vision of a United Europe domineering over an isolationist United States just does not ring true and is largely in the background until the closing chapters of the book. The characters opposed to the United Europe, such as Tim, merely regurgitate nationalistic rhetoric commonly heard today and no effort is made to show the flip side of the coin. Hence readers must endure a polemic diatribe on the evils of a European Union that is frankly insulting.

If this was truly intended as a social comedy, then Hamilton wasted countless opportunities to show up Jeff’s outmoded way of thinking and social graces amongst the younger generation. The only interesting fact about Baker is the real reason why he refused to patent the data crystal technology, though it is well in keeping with his character. As a result, even when Baker starts to change his ways, one is sceptical of his motives and a special effort is required to feel any sympathy for him when things all start to go wrong. Misspent Youth might have been salvaged if the story had been told in its entirety from Tim’s perspective. This would have meant losing the viewpoint of Tim’s girlfriend, including the hilarious moment where a romantic encounter between Tim and Annabelle is shown from both sides, but as this is the only highlight of her contributions it would have been a bearable sacrifice to make.

To give Hamilton his due, he is trying out new areas and this is to be applauded in a time where authors are more comfortable finding themselves a niche and plundering it for all its worth rather than take any chances. It’s just a shame that he attempted to write a character drama and neglected to create a cast of people that the reader can empathise with. A leash on the polemic ranting about the evils of the European Union would also have been useful.

At 368 pages, Misspent Youth is practically a short story by Hamilton’s usual standards but this should be viewed as a positive aspect. It’s all over very quickly, with Hamilton’s fluid writing making strangely compelling reading, though more in the manner of watching a train wreck than due to any inherent tension or an unpredictable plot. Hamilton has done far better than this in the past and one hopes that his next book will mark a return to form, whether in the far reaches of space or somewhere else.

This review first appeared in The Alien Online (March, 2003)

Desultor – Masters of Hate (Abyss Records, 2012)

A friend once remarked that late-era Nevermore is death metal in all but vocal style. Clean singing combined with death metal riffing is a form of extreme metal that has crossover appeal, albeit one that has remained relatively unexplored. Blistering.com suggests that this is because “few can figure out how to do it properly” and I have to agree with this assertion. Even the progressive death metal masters Opeth saved clean vocals for clean/acoustic guitar passages, which is all the more disappointing when “The Lotus Eater” (from Watershed) demonstrated that Mikael Åkerfeldt was capable of the more jarring mix of clean vocals with full-on death metal. At least until he disappeared up the prog arse of the Universe with Heritage but that’s a rant for another time.

Meanwhile Sweden’s Desultor has taken this potential and run with it, producing an accomplished debut album that skilfully layers traditional heavy metal vocals atop pummelling riffs and blast-beats. The earlier Nevermore citation wasn’t an idle one as vocalist/guitarist Markus Joha evokes Warrel Dane on numerous occasions, such as during the chorus of “Another World”, with a hint of Fracture‘s Paal Strand [1] in the background. The vocals aren’t always an unqualified success, such as the shrieks that wobble all over “Black Monday” without hitting a proper note until the pre-chorus, but by and large Joha utilises his range to great effect. There are occasional snarls that will help those coming to Desultor from a more brutal background, but his clean vocals are front and centre as both the biggest selling point of the band and the greatest potential hurdle to overcome. I have to admit that it took me a great deal less time to adjust to the idea as I have no issues with clean singing, despite mainly listening to death metal these days, and I’ve also listened a lot to the rather excellent Satan’s Host album By The Hands of the Devil (which can only be described as power black metal and comes highly recommended).

Elsewhere the riffing doesn’t let up at any point, smoothly shifting between aggressive thrash, melodic death and black metal tropes. Tremolo picking is mostly used, along with Gothenberg-esque palm-muted pedal riffs and the odd chord progression. It’s not overtly technical but then it’s not all that varied. Whilst he’s not on the same level as Nevermore’s former guitar god Jeff Loomis, Joha’s soloing is both tasteful and melodic, which is more than can often be said for the excessive guitar acrobatics of most power metal. Michael Ibrahim’s drumming is tightly in step with the music, providing a solid foundation for the rhythm guitar work, albeit confined to two modes of playing: a fast double-kick assault and blast-beat battery. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I would have preferred either a wider range of basic patterns or more creative fills.

At 34 minutes, Masters of Hate doesn’t outstay its welcome and is refreshingly free of bloat, but I remain unsure as to whether an album this immediate will have staying power. There is little in the way of intricacies to be teased out with repeated listens, and if one ignores the short but largely redundant instrumentals, there are only eight proper songs that mainly sit in the three to four minute range.

That said, this is a great debut and will appeal to any fans of progressive death metal, or indeed those who enjoy death metal music but can’t be having with grunted/growled vocals. Here’s hoping Desultor find their niche and go on to bigger and better things.

[1] Blistering cites Communic‘s Oddleif Stensland, a band which I’m not all that familiar but both Communic and Fracture hail from Norway.

Gears of War 2 (Epic, 2008)

With over two years of development time, unbridled hype from producer Cliff Bleszinski, and a number of zeroes usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters attached to the budget, expectations were high for a bigger and better sequel. After all, the original was a massive hit on the 360 and the cover-and-shoot core mechanic made a refreshing change from the glut of first-person-shooters that threatened to drown the console in a sea of gaming excrement; for the most part, Epic have succeeded in making a worthy successor to Gears of War.

Playing like a console version of a Michael Bay SF film, Gears of War 2 sees you assuming control of Marcus Fenix again in the war against the Locust. Following the events of the first game, the attempt to wipe out the alien Locust horde has failed and the remaining COG forces are under siege in Jacinto, the last human stronghold. Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad are ordered to mount a major offensive to take the battle to the Locust and… wait, who plays these games for the story? The important questions are these: is it still all grey, is the friendly AI better, is chainsawing enemies in half just as fun as it was before, and did anyone fix those irritating-to-the-point-of-controller-defenestration multiplayer glitches? (No, mostly, yes, yes, yes).

One of the major criticisms levelled at the original game was that it was too grey. Grey streets, grey skies, grey caverns, grey character models, grey everything, and when compared to the positively psychedelic Halo 3, Gears of War looked very drab indeed. This is not a criticism that can be applied to the sequel. The graphics are simply astounding, featuring sprawling gothic palaces, epic outdoor landscapes full of autumnal colours, and underground lakes of the almost fluorescent yellow Immulsion fuel. It’s one of those games where you can spend an age wandering around, staring in awe at the attention to detail, which is a good thing because in the early stages of the game you’ll find yourself in a number of situations where there is simply nothing to shoot at.

In Epic’s efforts change the game’s linear progression of walking-bit-shooting-bit-walking-bit-on-rails-bit-walking-bit-shooting-bit-repeat-until-abrupt-end-boss, they seem to have missed the point that the game was all about those confined, shoot-outs where you had to advance from cover to cover, flank and create cross-fires, and not the set-pieces. The opening hospital siege nails the feel of the first game perfectly, as does the final two acts, but in between the pace goes up and down like yo-yo. Those colourful wide landscapes? Wide and colourful they may be, but they are part of a long on-rails level where every so often you get to shoot things whilst marvelling at all the pretty. The vehicle section is better than the original’s – for one you can move and shoot at the same time – but goes on forever, there are too many on-rails sequences, and the final boss makes Raam look like a masterpiece of game design.

Luckily it’s not all bad. On the friendly AI front, there has been a vast improvement. In the original’s Kryll levels, where one had to stay in lighted areas to avoid being killed, computer-controlled Dom would invariably wander into a dark area and get torn to shreds, necessitating a restart and some choice curses at the appalling AI. Alternatively, in certain pitched battles, your entire team would get downed in the first ten seconds leaving you to finish off all the bad guys. Dom now takes cover properly and is capable of proper support. In fact, he’s so much better that if you hang around for too long admiring the scenery, Dom will mop up for you. This is good, because he’s no longer a complete liability, but also bad as it occasionally feels like the AI is doing all the work and you’re just standing around for show. Don’t worry though, there are still moments of complete ineptitude where Dom will get stuck in cover or refuse to budge, leaving you to struggle on alone to the next checkpoint. Huzzah!

Whilst not exactly an essential part of the original game, the ability to chainsaw an enemy in half was hilarious. It’s still just as fun as it’s always been, though now when two Lancer-wielding characters going for a chainsaw kill at the same time, they will clash in a duel and have to hammer the B button until one wins. Or you can cheat and get a teammate to chainsaw your opponent in the back which will automatically win the duel, compared to before when you’d have to wait until you’d been sawn in half before your teammate could engage. Not only are you able to chainsaw someone from behind (starting from the groin up!), there is now a whole series of unique executions. Instead of simply curb-stomping a downed enemy, you can now punch their face in, kick their head off, or use specific execution weapons which have their own animations (it’s a crying shame that Epic took out what would would been the ultimate in humiliation – ripping the enemy’s arm off and beating him to death with it). Hmm. This is probably the point where one should be made aware that this game features graphic violence and bad language, and is thus unsuitable for minors. Just so you know.

Alternatively, you can pick up a downed enemy and use him as a “meatshield”, wielding a pistol in your other hand. This is the first of many additions to your armoury. Others include the Mulcher heavy machine gun, a flame-thrower (more fun to use than its Halo 3 equivalent), the Boomshield (a metal shield carried by melee Boomers that can be planted in the ground to serve as cover) and the mortar, which rains parabolic-instant-death from the sky. There’s also the ink grenade which can be used to make an area of cover unusable, and all grenade types can now be tagged to walls to act like claymore mines.

The original game had multi-player added as an afterthought, but proved so popular with gamers that Epic resolved to patch as many glitches as possible. However, a number remained unresolved and all of these appear to have been fixed for the sequel. The “shotgun roll”, where rolling effectively makes you impervious to gunfire, is out, and the horrific advantage enjoyed by a match’s host has been mitigated. Unfortunately,the new weapons that work perfectly well in single-player unbalance multi-player quite badly. The mulcher is able to mow down entire teams with ease, and the mortar is as powerful as the Hammer of Dawn but without the warning beeps telling you to dodge or get under cover. Being able to grenade tag walls is fine in principle, except this can be mercilessly exploited by teams placing grenades on the inner doorway of a room with one entrance and just waiting for the opposing team to rush in [there was also the joy of smoke grenades knocking you over but this was later taken out]. It’s an incredibly unsportsmanlike way of playing, but years of Live experience have taught me that no one plays fair unless forced to do so.

Making criteria for the new achievements applicable across any game type is a good thing as it will remove the tendency for idiots in ranked (now referred to as “public”) matches to screw their team over. However it does give lazy people the opportunity to rack up most of them by setting up matches with the newly included bot players. Bot difficulty can be set between the game’s standard difficulty levels of Casual, Normal, Hardcore and Insane, and are useful for training or for a quick match, but the AI is….variable to say the least. A hardcore bot will be stupid enough to stand out in the razorhail on the Hail level and effectively commit suicide, whereas a bot on Insane might do exactly the same one round and in the next take out the last two members of a team using only a pistol. AI has a long way to go before it can offer the same challenge as a human player, but it’s getting there. Slowly.

Game type-wise, the existing complement of Warzone, Execution and Annex gets three new additions. The first is Submission (or Meatflag), which is similar to a standard capture-the-flag type game – two teams have to compete for a single flag and bring the flag back to their base. Except the flag is a computer-controlled human who must be downed before he can be picked up as a meatshield and carried to your base. Next is Wingman, where five teams of two compete to be the first to fifteen kills and is about as chaotic as you imagine it would be. Then Guardian, a kind of VIP-type game where one member of the team is the leader and must be executed by the opposition to win the round, and finally, the simply awesome Horde mode.

Horde mode is a co-operative multi-player game where you and up to four friends take on up to fifty waves of increasingly difficult Locust. A common tactic is to find a spot with few access points that be easily defended, then settle in and let them come. Initially, you can flank enemies and make runs for ammunition and weapons easily, but on later waves, breaking off from the group is suicidal. The tension slowly mounts up as ammunition becomes scarce and you have to weigh up the risks of making a run for ammo run or a dropped weapon for a better chance at surviving the next wave. Horde mode can be played on any of the multi-player maps and at any of the game’s five difficulty settings. Getting to Wave 50 on Normal alone will take some seriously co-ordinated effort (and possibly an exploit or two of the map’s layout), so it’s a crying shame that the achievement for surviving all fifty waves can be gained on any difficulty and no such achievement exists for the Insane level (it would have been ridiculous though. To give you an idea, I assembled a crack team of skilled players to give wave 50 on Insane a go and we lasted all of 38 seconds with zero kills. On our second attempt, we managed to inflict some damage before being wiped out again). When the single-player campaign has been done to death and playing randoms on Xbox Live becomes tiresome, Horde mode will keep you coming back for more.

If that wasn’t enough for you, downloadable content is available right now in the form of updates of the most popular multiplayer maps of the original, with the added bonus of being absolutely free. Even if you weren’t a fan of the original, Gears Of War 2 gets far more right than it gets wrong, and Horde mode alone constitutes one of the best multiplayer experiences you’ll have this year. A worthy sequel to the original and one of the best games released this year.

This review first appeared in slightly different form on the Herts & Essex Observer website (December 2008)

Condemned 2 (Sega, 2008)

Nominally a first-person-shooter, Condemned 2 could be more accurately described as a first-person-mystery-survival-horror-homeless-person-beat-em-up-with-occasional-gunplay. Which just goes to show that accurate description acronyms don’t roll off the tongue as easily as FPS.

As former Serial Crimes Unit investigator and now homeless alcoholic Ethan Thomas, you are press-ganged by the SCU into hunting the killer of your former colleague, Malcolm Vanhorn. This generally involves exploring dimly-lit buildings armed only with a torch, and soiling your underwear every time a homeless guy jumps out and proceeds to bludgeon you to death with a rusty pipe, which has much in common with survival horror games such as Resident Evil (replacing ‘homeless guy’ with ‘brain munching zombie’).

Every once in a while, you come across a body or a blood trail that must be examined using your array of forensic gadgetry that includes a UV lamp and a sound spectrometer. Multiple choice questions are asked that must be answered based on your examination of the crime scene. Whilst this occasionally requires more knowledge that can be reasonably expected of a non-CSI addict, this is a surprisingly fun part of the game. Accurate assessments are rewarded with upgrades such as brass knuckles for additional melee damage, or a flak jacket for protection against bullets, though irritatingly there is no opportunity to retry a failed investigation short of restarting the level.

Guns do feature, but ammunition is often limited and soon you’ll have to fall back to Condemned 2‘s main violence dispensing mechanic – melee combat. Melee techniques are now de rigeur in FPS games, usually consisting of a single attack. Condemned 2 however features a complex system involving left or right punches, kicks, blocks, and devastating combos that can be used to stun, knock down or finish off an opponent with a Mortal Kombat-esque fatality. In addition, a wide variety of weapons can be picked up and wielded or thrown, ranging from bricks and baseball bats to more esoteric choices such as prosthetic arms and even toilet seats.

The learning curve is steep and even seasoned gamers may find themselves dying frequently until they become accustomed to the timing necessary to block and counter-attack effectively. There is an unfortunate level of inconsistency in the amount of effort required to down an enemy – some glass-jawed enemies can only take a couple of punches, whilst others seem to shrug off attacks from a sword! Nevertheless, the hand-to-hand combat is visceral and strangely enjoyable, as is the addition of “environmental kills” as quick time events, whereby Ethan can finish off an enemy by throwing them head-first into a television or through a window.

There is a palpable feeling of tension as you explore the urban decay of Ethan’s nameless city, and the game’s developers use every opportunity they can to freak out a player, from having monsters hanging on the ceiling that grab you, to enemies rushing you from behind an unexplored door in a seemingly empty room. This is one of those games where having the lights on could be considered acceptable.

Naturally multi-player gametypes are included, playable online via the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, and supporting up to eight players. The usual suspects of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are present and correct, as well as Bum Rush in which a team of SCU agents have to defend against the Influenced (ie the enraged homeless guys) for as long as possible. The fourth gametype is Crime Scene which again pits the SCU agents against the Influenced. The Influenced have to hide two cases of evidence which the SCU agents must find and scan before their time limit runs out. Unfortunately, latency makes a mockery of the combat system to the point where blocking becomes meaningless and the entire multiplayer aspect feels it’s been crowbarred into a perfectly adequate single-player game.

All in all, this is a highly enjoyable game. Well, assuming one gets used to the combat system, is prepared to forgive the overly cryptic puzzles that crop up every so often, doesn’t mind not being able to jump (which leads to some absurb situations where progress is blocked by a one-foot high cardboard box), and can accept the frankly bonkers SF angle that the game takes in the last few levels. That might sound overly critical, but Condemned 2 could have been a truly excellent game rather than just very good. A word to the wise: the playable demo available on Xbox Live is not a good indication of the game as a whole. Try renting the game first if you weren’t convinced, as it does get a lot better when the investigations kick in.

This review originally appeared in slightly modified form in the Herts & Essex Observer (May, 2008)

The Goblin Corps by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2011)

After spending centuries on a cunning plan for world domination, the Charnel Lord Morthûl is foiled by sorceror Ananais duMark and his group of meddling heroes. Out of spite Morthûl murders the only daughter of duMark’s liege, King Dororam, who in turn assembles all the armies of the Allied Kingdoms in an effort to end the threat of Morthûl once and for all. Morthûl has no intention of being destroyed by mere mortals and plots a counterstrike that involves forming an elite Demon Squad for a top secret mission. Thus Cræosh the orc, Katim the troll, Belrotha the ogre, Fezeill the doppelganger, Gimmol the gremlin, Gork the kobold and Jhurpess the bugbear are thrown together and expected to get along on pain of an extremely torturous death (or merely the prospect of joining the Charnel Lord’s legion of undead servants). At any rate, they have other things to worry about, like the historic survival rate for Demon Squads being on the low side and not having a clue about the finer details of the mission. Or, indeed, any of them. If the group can survive for long enough and avoid killing each other then perhaps they’ll be the ones who will save the day, albeit for the forces of evil.

Telling a fantasy story from the point of view of the villains is nothing new. Mary Gentle was one of the first almost twenty years ago (Grunts!) and more recently Stan Nicholls (the Orcs series) and Jim C. Hines (Jig the Goblin) have had a crack. So what does Marmell bring to the table with his effort? Subverted tropes, complex characters and plotting? You wish. What you get is course-grained characterisation and relationships predicated on gross racial behaviours, layered with bad slapstick comedy married to a plot ripped out wholesale from a roleplaying quest. That is to say that the Demon Squad go looking for various magical items, during which the big guys (the orc and troll) pick on the small guys (the gremlin and the kobold) whilst the ogre and the bugbear provide comic relief by being really fucking stupid. Some of it is even occasionally amusing:

A keening war cry rose to the uncaring heavens, and it took the startled Cræosh a moment to realize that it had come from the gremlin!
“For King Morthûl! For the Demon Squad!” Gimmol shouted, eyes gleaming with fervor and anticipation – and then glistening blade a shining beacon above his head, he charged madly in the wrong direction.
“Gremlins,” Fezeill observed as the stunned party watched him go, “do not have particularly good night vision”

There is a fair amount of shit-wading to be done to get to those rare moments and there are many more instances of dwarf kobold/gremlin tossing, insults on a par with ‘your Mum’ jokes, ‘funny’ bullying and narrative missteps, deliberate or otherwise. Cræosh uses nicknames such as Nature-boy for Jhupess (because he’s simian and lives in a forest), Dog-breath for Katim (trolls in this world have hyena heads) and Shorty for Gork (because he’s…you get the idea). Oh do stop, Mr Marmell, my sides are splitting.

The repetitive nature of the comedy makes reading the book a complete slog, assuming you are able to survive prose that describes a serpent-like creature as moving “with the speed (unsurprisingly) of a striking snake” or a character losing his balance and staggering “sideways in a clumsy dance as his entire center of balance became, well, uncentered”. There is a later example of such poor narration that is lampshaded as being the fault of the character’s exhausted state; fair enough but this would have worked better if Marmell had done it much earlier and, more importantly, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor. With wordplay chapter titles such as “Elf Care” and “Ogre and Under”, the book elicited a binary response of Picard-style facepalms and wanting to punch the author in the face.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the pacing is completely broken. It takes 200 pages to find out about the Demon Squad’s mission, the aforementioned magical item hunt, carried out on behalf of Morthûl wife, Queen Anne (one would never have guessed that Marmell got his start writing material for Dungeons & Dragons). There are some sub-plots added for variety, such as Gimmol’s secret talent and from the introduction of dark elf Nurien Ebonwind who wants information on troop movements, but they also take so long to play out that they all collapse under the weight of expectation. Once those all wind up, we’re onto another secret mission that finishes all too quickly before the epilogue and the shocking, shocking I tell you, twist. James Barclay thinks that having fantasy stereotypes thrown in your face is entertaining and fun. I think he’s talking rubbish.

Few and far between they may be, there are occasional glimmers of worth buried in the dross. Genuinely amusing scenes occur from time to time and Marmell’s decision to start proceedings after Morthûl’s grand defeat is an interesting take on the trope (although, again, this was done first by Gentle). Also in its favour is the fact that the book is a standalone and the cover is gorgeous, even if it won’t appeal to fans outside of the genre.

In many ways, I’m surprised that there is still so much shit fantasy published when the genre has been elevated to higher standards. Back in the Nineties, I read far too many Dragonlance novels as a teenager and I would probably have lapped up The Goblin Corps. In the meantime Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch (amongst a good many others) have had fantasy works published that do witty dialogue and black humour a damn sight better and have got fantasy trope subversion down to a fine art. In short, go and read Abercrombie et al instead.

This review first appeared in Vector #269 (February, 2012)

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011)

To echo Perfect Answer’s opening recap, childhood friends Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) meet by chance, die in an accident and are resurrected by a mysterious black sphere known as Gantz to fight in a secret war against aliens hiding on Earth. Gantz awards its unwilling recruits points based on performance and those that survive to make 100 points can choose to be set free with their memories erased or to resurrect a deceased comrade. Thus when Kato dies in battle, Kurono vows to to bring him back.

Five months on and Kurono has become an alien killing machine close to reaching that 100 point score. He’s had to lie to both his girlfriend Tae Kojima (Yuriko Yoshitaka), and Kato’s younger brother Ayumu (Kensuke Chisaka), but that’s all going to change. For the worse. Former star Eriko Ayukawa (Ayumi Ito) is murdering human targets on the orders of a miniature Gantz ball, whilst a group of black-suited individuals are after that miniature ball as a means to get to Gantz itself. Meanwhile an unnamed detective (Yamada Takayuki) is investigating the scores of dead people whose bodies keep on vanishing and occasionally reappearing as if nothing had happened. All of these groups are on a collision course with Kurono and his buddies, with the fates of Kojima and Gantz hanging in the balance.

Perfect Answer is a prime example of the slow motion car crash that frequently occurs when a film attempts to adapt a manga that has either not yet concluded or one that is too complex to summarise easily. The filmmakers are forced to make things up to fill in the gap, often with appalling results. In this case, director Shinsuke Sato decides on a middle path that adds some new elements to the fray with a seemingly random mash-up of plot from the manga and the anime. What ensues can only be described as balls.

After a slow burn start that sets the principals in motion, the film peaks during an action set-piece in which all parties converge on an unsuspecting Kojima in a crowded subway train. The black-suited aliens gun down hapless civilian commuters before materialising swords from their hands and duelling with Kurono and company in the narrow confines of the train carriages. It’s a superbly handled scene that only serves to make the events that follow look weak by comparison.

The film’s one new contribution, the premise that Gantz is re-recruiting its most successful participants (those who reached 100 points and chose to be set free) by having them murdered is a sublime touch that is cast aside in favour of the black-suited alien revenge plot. Well, there’s also the sub-plot about Kato’s evil twin but that’s not worthy of discussion, since it’s painfully obvious to the audience that it’s not the real Kato and furthermore no attempt is made to explain why the alien leader takes his form nor why any of the other aliens don’t do the same. It’s as if the very thought of having a star of Matsuyama’s stature absent from the bulk of the film was inconceivable to its producers; casting taking precedence over story.

Perhaps the film’s greatest crime is that it lacks a suitable level of emotional depth. With the earlier film having done the dirty work of character building (it tried to at any rate), we come to care about Kurono and Kojima but everyone else gets short shrift, especially the new members of the team who are introduced briefly, thrown into the mix and then are killed off one by one. The intra-team disputes and self-sacrifices thus become meaningless in the face of banging out a protracted chase scene, a less well executed sword-fight and a senseless point-blank range shoot-out finale.

Scratch that. What is worse is that the film suffers from catastrophic imagination failure. Considering the first film ended with Kurono taking down a giant Buddha statue and the manga has featured everything from rampaging dinosaurs and a full-scale alien invasion to a character blacking up and going on a shooting spree in downtown Tokyo to rejoin the ranks of Gantz’s unwilling army, the lack of creativity in Perfect Answer is painful to behold.

There’s some dodgy CGI in the mix too, which is a shame when the first film did it so well, but by this point I was gaping more at how internal consistency goes flying out of the window leading up to and including the sickly sweet epilogue in which everyone but Kurono comes back to life, and Kurono’s reward is to wind up inside Gantz, leaving the stage open for further films.

In conclusion, both Gantz films have combined forces to form yet another manga adaptation that fails to pass muster. The source material may well be a sex-obsessed, long-winded (and as yet unfinished) gore-filled epic, but it’s still a damn sight better than both its anime and film versions.