Balancing secret organisations, wondrous magical creatures, and the compelling tale of a young black girl rising up and overcoming prejudices is no small task. Fortunately for children all over the world, middle-grade debut author B. B. Alston has done just that in magnificent fashion.
From very early on it is hard to ignore the vague similarities between certain aspects of Amari and the Night Brothers and other popular works of children’s literature. The Crystal Ball ceremony takes certain cues from the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, the inclusion of a rich tapestry of preexisting mythology is a leaf taken straight out of the Rick Riordan Presents playbook, and magical creatures being hidden from mortal eyesight until special equipment is acquired is something previously seen in The Spiderwick Chronicles. Thankfully, Alston has steered well clear of any Hobgoblin spit. What separates Amari Peters from all of the heroes and heroines in those other books, however, is that she is grounded squarely in a reality which so many children all across the world can relate to. And that is what makes her so compelling.
Hailing from the low-income housing projects in Rosewood, Amari has forever lived in the shadow of her older brother Quinton, whom she idolised. Not only was he a kind brother and a loving son, but he was also a crucial figure in the local community and a rock to many other disadvantaged children. When he mysteriously disappeared several years ago he left a void which has never been filled, and while the authorities begun to assume the worst, Amari never gave up hope.
That enduring hope is suddenly vindicated when a briefcase arrives on her doorstep containing a recorded invitation from Quinton to follow in his footsteps as a member of the Supernatural Bureau of Investigations, a secret organisation which protects the world from the unseen and mysterious, the wicked and the foul, and the eponymous Night Brothers who have used their evil magic to terrorise the world for centuries.
What follows is a rip-roaring adventure as the reader witnesses Amari blossom from a troubled child whose scholarship is in jeopardy into a confident, powerful trainee in the Bureau. The same troubles follow her from the mortal world into the supernatural one, stemming mostly from small-minded cliques who hate Amari for just being herself, but with her new weredragon best friend Elsie and Agents Magnus and Fiona fighting in her corner, the bullies and Van Helsings (yes, those Van Helsings) don’t stand a chance.
From start to finish, Amari and the Night Brothers is a touching story which will melt the hearts of both adults and children alike. The plight of Amari’s single-parent mother, who has lost a son and is working herself to the bone in order to care for her daughter, is one which would populate the nightmares of any parent.
In contrast, a whole new world of excitement, danger, and the unimaginable suddenly being presented to Amari as an alternative to her downward-spiralling reality is a prospect which would enthral any child. Taking this idea and running with it, the further into the novel you dive the crazier things get, and Alston masterfully crafts an unpredictable story of family and friendship, love and loyalty, and most importantly for the reader, danger and delight.
In May 2019 it was announced that Marsai Martin, of Black-ish fame, would star in a movie adaptation of the novel, and also act as a producer alongside Don Cheadle. With any luck this will be the first in a long-running franchise, as if the first entry in the Supernatural Investigations series is any indication, Amari Peters is a character who we are going to love for many years to come.
Not only does the first middle-grade fantasy book of 2021 not disappoint, it knocks the socks off its reader and blows away any and all expectations. Amari and the Night Brothers releases on January 19th in the US and January 21st in the UK, and can be preordered now from all good book stores.
As the sophomore season of the Disney+ flagship show lands in a sitting room near you at lightspeed, the weight of high expectations and fan theorizing rests heavily on the shoulders of lead creatives Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, as well as every other creative in front of and behind the camera. If the season two premiere is any indication, it looks like they may have just exceeded each and every one of these expectations in effortless fashion.
In broad strokes, the first few minutes of this episode play out in similar fashion to those of the initial season one premiere. Our protagonist, the titular Mandalorian known as Din Djarin, is on assignment in an alien environment, using nothing but his wits and his personal arsenal of advanced weaponry to survive. The key difference is that whereas before he was operating as a bounty hunter chasing his mark, this time around he has the fan-favourite Child in tow and is seeking information on where he might find other members of his warrior culture. A few world-building moments and fight sequences later, Mando is then on his way back to Tatooine to chase up a lead on a fellow mystery Mandalorian who he hopes can help him repatriate his green and diminutive adopted baby.
While it feels like a logical progression from the season one finale when the Armorer gave him these orders, proceedings are swiftly turned on their head when it transpires that the sighted Mandalorian is hiding out in Mos Pelgo, a township far from the infamous Mos Eisley and absent from any official maps.
Upon arrival he soon encounters the man he seeks, a man acting as the town’s marshal and wearing Mandalorian armour – which franchise fans will immediately recognize as the set previously owned by Boba Fett. Except, Boba Fett is not the person hiding underneath the helmet – it is Cobb Vanth, a character who originally appeared in the Aftermath trilogy of books and is now using the armour as an authoritative uniform. After demanding that he return the armour to a true Mandalorian, but before things can turn hostile, a gigantic Krayt Dragon causes havoc in the township. This encourages both men to put aside their differences and work together for mutual benefit – if Mando saves Mos Pelgo by helping to take out the leviathan along with rival Tusken Raiders then Cobb will voluntarily hand over the armour.
The premise of the episode is daring in scope when ties to previously-established canon are considered, yet simple in nature when the basic idea of ‘monster hunter saves town’ comes to the fore at the end of the first act and then drives the rest of the episode’s narrative.
Sitting comfortably at over fifty minutes in length this is by far the longest episode of the series to date, and this goes a long way to allow certain moments to breathe and run their course naturally rather than having to be rushed along for the sake of plot. In many respects it is comparable to a mini-movie rather than an episode of television, and that is definitely a large feather in the cap of all those involved behind the scenes – particularly those responsible for the jaw-dropping change in aspect ratio during the climactic Krayt Dragon fight.
The very inclusion of the Krayt Dragon is itself a love letter to Star Wars fans, harkening back not only to the infant skeleton of a mysterious creature in the opening act A New Hope, but also a plethora of other references to the species in the franchise’s expanded media.
However, this being the first time it has been seen onscreen, in all of its destructive and dazzling special effects glory, is just the latest in a long line of inclusions in the series which have rewarded long-time fans of the franchise for their diligence. From a model of storage container first seen on Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back being used to transport Beskar steel, to a Lothal cat hissing from underneath a table on the forest planet Sorgan, the writing team behind The Mandalorian have been careful to include just the right amount of minute details and larger subplots that only an überfan will fully appreciate. Thankfully, this process has been practised to a fine art and while not every detail and inclusion is fully appreciated by everybody, the series can still be watched in a vacuum and no enjoyment or context is lost. This is fan service done right.
From a technical standpoint the series is even more impressive now than it was last season, with the set design, character wardrobes, and prosthetics being as impeccable as ever. The world(s) that are inhabited by this cast of characters feels truly lived in, and even on a familiar planet things still feel brand new.
Part of the commendation must deservedly go to the VFX artists working with The Volume, the on-set technology being used to produce digital backgrounds and special effects in realtime rather than using jarring green screen. As with last season, this has allowed them to continue making CGI look more realistic than ever before, with some of the set pieces during the climax of the episode even putting parts of the franchise’s theatrical outings to shame.
The cherry on top of this spectacular episode is the return of Temeura Morrison as Boba Fett himself, seen watching from afar as Mando rides off into the sunset with his armour in tow. What this means for the future of both characters is open to speculation, but in the meantime fans can rejoice in the knowledge that the character behind everyone’s favourite action figure survived his apparent death in 1983.
In conclusion, from script to director’s chair Jon Favreau has delivered an impeccable opening episode to the new season of The Mandalorian. By any metric, be it technical prowess, plot progression, pacing, longtime fan satisfaction, sound design, and anything in-between, this premiere episode was a roaring success. The stage has now well and truly been set for what is surely going to be a rollercoaster of a season, especially with it being all but confirmed that another fan-favourite character, this time of the animated variety, is on her way to making a live-action debut in the coming weeks. If anyone is still undecided on whether or not they should join the masses and follow the adventures of The Mandalorian and The Child, then just know that this is the Star Wars you spent your childhood daydreaming about while playing with action figures.
One week removed from worldwide Batman Day celebrations and the dust has now well and truly settled on the anniversary issue which marks the occasion. One thousand issues of Detective Comics have come and gone since the most popular caped crusader first graced its pages, and the question now on everybody’s lips is how does such an oversaturated character stay so popular and culturally relevant?
The answer to this question is quite simple really – although a thousand issues have come and gone (and many, many more if we include his other series), the character of Batman has undergone so much change and evolution that he would make even the scriptwriters of the Jurassic Park franchise blush. It is that state of constant flux, that flourish of individuality brought to the table by an army of different writers throughout the years, which makes Bruce Wayne the world’s most popular superhero. It is for that precise reason that a landmark issue such as this one is not an action-packed extravaganza, but instead a collection of a dozen short stories from a dozen all-star creative teams who all tackle a different element of the Batman mythology.
From an impressive feat of escape artistry in the first story “Blowback” to shepherding the rest of the Batfamily through a murder mystery in “The Master Class,” Batman’s prowess is on show right from the very beginning. As entertaining as these stories are, true value is found in those such as “Rookie” which tackle the idea of Batman, in this case how much of an inspiration he can be to the people of Gotham. This is then humorously twisted in “Detective #26” when the emergence of the Bat forces a would-be vigilante to seek early retirement when he realises just how ineffective he is compared to The Dark Knight.
That is not to say that more straightforward and traditional, albeit shorter, tales of the bat are not entertaining. Stories such as “Odyssey” manage to spin a complete and satisfying narrative, the dozen-page constraint having no bearing on its ability to be compelling. Whereas “Legacy”, which could very easily just have been a standard Batman vs. Dr. Phosphorous battle, instead looked to the future and reminded us all why this slightly-mad, night-prowling costumed character is unequivocally on the side of the angels.
The final two stories, “Generations: Fractured” and “A Gift”, being drawn-out advertisements for future stories feels inappropriate in a celebration of Batman’s past. However, others such as “Many Happy Returns” and “As Always” balance this out by reminding us how tirelessly the Bat fights against evil, be it the Joker or any number of cosmic entities. While we don’t meet the likes of Darkseid or the Anit-Monitor face-to-face, it would have been a missed opportunity to not have a story featuring the Clown Prince of Crime relentlessly tormenting the yin to his yang.
In conclusion, this issue is a tremendous publication from DC and while not every story included has been mentioned by name they all come together to feature something for everyone. Whether you are an old-school Batman fan or a relative newcomer, this is one collected edition-sized anniversary issue that deserves its place on your shelf rather than inside a bag and board.
Stuck in development hell after numerous delays spanning several years, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants finally hit theatres this month and is one of the first to do so during the global pandemic. Breaking the traditional superhero mould and fusing X-Gene mayhem with YA horror, the biggest question hanging over its head is was it worth the wait?
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
It feels like a lifetime ago when Thor: Ragnarok landed in theatres across the world back in October 2017, accompanied by the first trailer for what would be the final entry in the FOX-Men series of cinematic outings. Had this movie released in April 2018 as originally planned its target audience would still be gushing over Stranger Things and one of its stars Charlie Heaton, they would not yet have been disappointed by Maisie Williams’ final season of Game of Thrones, and they would be eagerly awaiting Anya Taylor-Joy’s next blockbuster outing between the one-two punch that would become Split and its sequel Glass. Instead those ships have all left the harbour a long time ago, and since the planned reshoots never actually happened we have to wonder what was the point of keeping this ensemble of talented young actors on the shelf for so long.
A couple of minutes and one disaster movie intro later after the lights dim and the projector powers up, the audience follows Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar to the mysterious medical facility in which she has woken up. Far from a traditional hospital, she finds herself handcuffed to the bed and under constant observation by biometric-scanning CCTV cameras before the initially-soothing Dr. Reyes comforts her new patient and explains her new set of circumstances. Soon joined by her four other fellow patients, or rather inmates, Dani discovers that she is being kept in an off-the-grid facility which teaches dangerous new mutants how to control their powers and reintegrate into society. However, doctoral qualifications aside, Reyes shares very few similarities with the altruistic Xavier over in Westchester.
It isn’t long before the sinister underbelly of Dani’s new home is revealed, with her housemates being kept there mostly against their will long-term with no release in sight.
The exact circumstances of her arrival uncertain, all that is known is that something devastating tore through Dani’s ancestral home and killed all of its inhabitants. She, however, is relatively unharmed and strange things begin to go bump in the night when she becomes agitated during her nightmares. With a healthy dose of dramatic irony at play by keeping the movie’s six characters in the dark until the final act, it is immediately apparent to the audience that Dani has the ability to make a person’s worst nightmare manifest in the real world. This leads to a destructive final confrontation with her inner demons as it takes the form of the Demon Bear from her childhood folklore, killing Dr. Reyes and freeing these five new mutants from under her boot. But not before they get the chance to work together as a team and embrace rather than fear their superpowers to defeat it, of course.
In many ways the movie works, making the audience care for each of the teenagers in turn except for Roberto ‘Sunspot’ da Costa, who is an unfortunate victim of sequel setup which will now never happen.
This disappointing oversight aside, by and large Boone has made great use of a short runtime to cover the backstories of four other troubled teenagers whose origin stories contain a mix of survivor’s guilt, Catholic shame, penitent mourning, and repressed sexual trauma. Far from the usual radioactive spider or gamma rays, one thing which Boone does not do with this cast of comic books characters is shy away from what makes them tick. Although it is for the most part implicit context rather than explicit content, the narrative is still served well by the gradual reveals of their individual histories.
That being said, what The New Mutants needed more than anything else is more room to breathe. Claustrophobia aside, which in fact ups the tension as the characters never leave the facility, events and exposition happen one after the other and after another like clockwork, as if a checklist of things to cover is being ticked off one by one. If the rumours of the planned reshoots being used to incorporate more horror elements are true, they would have been a welcome addition if they also brought along with them enough extra footage to bump the runtime up to two hours and allow a world to develop onscreen. Rather than escaping to the world of cinema and becoming immersed in the FOX-Men universe one last time, instead we feel more like casual observers who are simply viewing quick-cut snippets of the characters’ lives.
To make matters worse, even though she is the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble, Dani is overshadowed by Illyana Rasputin in almost every way.
With the most explicit backstory and substantial script material to work with, Anya Taylor-Joy easily puts in the best performance of the bunch and makes this another successful footnote in her growing filmography. Not that fellow sci-fi franchise veterans Charlie Heaton and Maisie Williams are pushovers, nor are the rest of the cast, but it is a simple case of another character ultimately being more compelling and entertaining to watch than the one who is supposed to be the audience’s eyes and introduction into this new world. Add in miniature dragon Lockheed, a gigantic glowing Soulsword, teleportation portals into Limbo and suddenly you find yourself just lamenting the fact that we will likely never see Magik link up with her famous metallic brother Colossus of Deadpool fame.
The aforementioned Williams also produces some of the best acting in this outing, her strong Catholic faith contrasting nicely with the real-life horror movie unfolding in front of these fictional characters. Sharing a number of touching scenes with Blu Hunt’s Dani as they explore their sexual identity and budding romance, in many ways they link up to form the heart of the movie.
Tragically, this great performance is overshadowed in some scenes by shockingly bad special effects in an otherwise impressive movie CGI-wise. Made famous for being a werewolf in an X-Man suit in the source material, here Rahne Sinclair deviates between being a regular wolf and Maisie Williams with extra tufts of fur around her neck and longer nails. In a project which contains a building-sized nightmare bear, a teleporting girl with a sword and a pair of boys who can spontaneously combust and charge through the air at extreme speeds, this is unfortunately a distractingly disappointing effort which will not age well for a character who the audience spends a lot of time connecting with and is portrayed by such a fan-favourite actor.
Also disappointing is the absence of the true villain behind Dr. Reyes and the facility, implied through context to be the infamous X-Men villain Mr. Sinister when it is revealed that Essex Corporation is the governing body. No doubt setup for the rest of the trilogy along with the pleasantly surprising connection to Logan, given that this movie is now just a one-and-done affair it instead reeks of unfulfilled opportunities.
Plagued by studio-mandated pushbacks and delays that killed any momentum the project might have had in the first place, The New Mutants caps off the FOX-Men Cinematic Universe with a whimper rather than a bang. Although it is full to the brim with young and talented actors, an appropriately eerie atmosphere, mostly-perfect special effects and a drive to do something different, this outing is weighed down by failings which are too glaring to ignore. It’s hurried runtime robs the audience of the quieter moments which are well-executed when present, its traditionally superhero-esque third act marks a tonal shift so out of left field that it gives the audience whiplash, and its efforts to tie together other projects containing an X-Gene are unfortunately too little too late and leave longtime fans of the franchise craving something that is now never going to see fruition.
The latest original blockbuster to land on Netflix since The Old Guard took the streaming service by storm last month, Project Power once again proves that the big screen feel can be condensed into your living room.
For many years now some of the highest grossing films every summer have been those featuring heroes with spectacular superpowers. In 2020, however, there has been something of a drought. You won’t find this film in a cinema near you, nor will you find anyone in it particularly heroic when compared to their genre competition at Marvel Studios and Warner Brothers. Their powers do not come from a radioactive spider or the radiation from an orange star either, instead being the byproduct of a dangerous new drug flooding the streets of New Orleans. The only thing standing in its way? An ex-military Jamie Foxx in search of his daughter, a vengeful Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking to level the playing field for the NOPD, and an out-of-her-depth Dominique Fishback caught up in the middle of this drug war as she tries to provide for her and her disadvantaged mother.
From the very beginning Project Power is all flash, and thankfully for the viewers at home there is also a healthy dose of substance to go along with it. Impressive CGI aside, the story opens with a mysterious benefactor gifting large quantities of Power to local drug dealers, a pill which grants the user a random animal-based superpower for just five minutes. From bulletproof armadillo skin to chameleon invisibility, the possibilities are endless. So, too, is the potential for chaos on the streets of New Orleans.
Enter high schooler Robin who is one of the locals enamoured with the money on offer for pushing this new product, conscious of the fact that it is just her and her mother against the world and that she needs an avenue out of her current life to greater things. Rounding out the trinity is the mysterious Art, who the police believe to be the source of Power but who is instead out to take it off the streets and find his kidnapped daughter in the process. If anyone has any doubts as to how Jamie Foxx can take on a superpowered drug dealer then look no further than poor Newt, temporarily portrayed by rapper Machine Gun Kelly.
Straddling the fine line between thrilling action and heartfelt character moments, Project Power manages to juggle the best of both worlds and produce a well-balanced narrative. Just when it feels like the story is getting bogged down along comes a new scene-stealing superpower, and when it all gets just a little bit too gratuitous another layer is peeled back on a main character to further our emotional attachment to them.
That isn’t to say that the film is without its flaws. The elements of Art’s background concerning the government conspiracy behind Power sometimes descends into tedium, and not all of the special effects are as gorgeous as the trailer would have you believe. One instance of extreme gigantism borders on the ridiculous and is more akin to the CGI you would find on network television rather than a Hollywood production. Nevertheless, the shortcomings are little more than nitpicks and are soon overlooked as soon as the next scene enthrals the viewer once more.
The worldbuilding present adds a lot to the narrative. Every television report and newspaper article about a superpowered attack makes the world feel that much more lived-in. Joining the ranks of The Old Guard and Bright, this is another Netflix Original film which would benefit greatly from either a straight sequel or even a television series follow-up.
In conclusion, Project Power is another impressive arrow in the quiver of Netflix’s catalogue of original content. Balancing a cast of A-listers and relative unknowns, impressive set pieces and intimate character moments, and contrasting the allure of superpowers against the sometimes-horrifying consequences, this is one film which fans of the genre dare not miss.
The first live-action outing from the DC Universe streaming service to be classed as “child friendly,” Stargirl proves that you don’t need strong violence, gratuitous swearing, or body horror to tell a compelling superhero origin story.
When a television series based on Courtney Whitmore, a.k.a. Stargirl, was announced in the summer of 2018 it was met with some confusion. Namely, how it would gel against the otherwise-mature content being produced on DCU. Thankfully it purposely does not gel, and instead finds its own tone, niche, and balance of wholesome teenage superhero shenanigans versus nefarious adult supervillain machinations. Although it benefited from a next-day broadcast on American network The CW, Stargirl takes a leaf out of its fellow streaming series’ playbook and consists of just 13 episodes compared to a network standard of 22. But just how well does it utilise a concise runtime?
Where the likes of Titans and, to a lesser extent, Doom Patrol stumble and sometimes spend too much time flashbacking to the past, this series strikes a perfect balance between supplying the audience with all of the context they need regarding the Justice and Injustice Societies of America while also setting up the successors to these mantles in a satisfying way. By the time the season has reached its halfway point the stage is set, the second incarnation of the JSA has been established and developed, and the ISA have already committed enough atrocities to make us want to see each and every one of them suffer a beatdown from the ever-impressive S.T.R.I.P.E. mecha.
Speaking of the invention of legacy sidekick Pat Dugan, the CGI budget and SFX wizardry present throughout the series is something to behold. Be it the emotive Cosmic Staff, the chilling villain Icicle, or the stunning action set pieces, it can never be said that Stargirl does not impress on a visual level.
That is not to say that the actual drama and emotional punch found here is lacking in any way, as nothing could be further from the truth. What many comic book-based series fail to do is convey a sense of risk, with the audience generally safe in the knowledge that the hero will triumph in the end and the status quo will be reinstated. Without giving away the plot of the finale, what can be safely revealed is that throughout the series enough tragedies and pitfalls dash the hopes of our young cast of heroes to assure the audiences that the gloves are off and as far as Season Two is concerned, no one is safe.
There is also enough emotional baggage associated with our heroes that you would need S.T.R.I.P.E. itself to carry it all. From dead parents to invasions of privacy to teenage angst, they’ve got it all.
Hourman is haunted by the deaths of his parents, initially thought to have died in a regular car accident. It is revealed throughout the course of the series that the accident was in fact caused by Solomon Grundy on the fateful night which eradicated the original JSA, a revelation which motivates him to take down the ISA. Wildcat regressed from a sociable, straight-A student to a forced recluse at the behest of her parents after intimate pictures of her were leaked by her then-boyfriend’s jealous ex. In one of the series’ many plot conveniences, both of these teenagers are the children of ISA members. Dr. Mid-Nite, meanwhile, is more or less just along for the ride and is enjoying getting to know the AI replica of her predecessor which inhabits her high-tech goggles. Last but not least, Stargirl herself is determined to vanquish the ISA after learning that her father, supposedly the original Starman, was also killed alongside the parents of the new Hourman.
On the other hand, by comparison the vast majority of the Injustice Society members are disappointingly one-note, with the exception of scene-stealing Icicle and Brainwave who are determined to brainwash the American population and force them to conform to their ideals.
Nevertheless, stereotypical moustache-twirling villains aside, every episode in the series adds another piece to the puzzle that is the mysterious happenings in Blue Valley, with not a minute of screentime wasted. By the time the final confrontations take place in the two-part finale large dollops of vindication and justice are dished out to the audience’s glee, while also laying an intriguing foundation for Season Two.
In conclusion, Stargirl is a wonderful antithesis to the grimdark standard which has been set by other live-action series on DC Universe. Its main star is a delight to watch navigate the superhero realm, her co-stars are suitably fleshed-out and grounded in reality, and the classic superhero action is second to none in the television arena. While some of its villains hold it back from being the perfect series, their comeuppance will have to satisfy audiences for now before the survivors return to plague the JSA next year.
From guest-starring in the Darth Vader comic series to headlining her own forty-issue run, from a crossover with Skywalker and Co. to a second volume of her own series which is now well under way, Dr. Chelli Aphra is certainly popular in four-colour print. But can she make the switch to a sightless medium?
To the relief of her legion of fans, the answer is a resounding yes. Since blasting onto the scene in early 2015 a handful of different artists and writers have put their stamp on everyone’s favourite archaeologist since Indiana Jones. This audio drama adaptation of her first set of appearances in the Darth Vader comic series where she finds herself under his employ puts the focus on her own perspective, in addition to adding some bonus content which before now would have been left to the imagination of the reader. In concept it is intriguing, and in practice it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Scribed by seasoned author Sarah Kuhn, the voice and chaotic neutral energy of Aphra is captured perfectly in this five-hour adventure. While it may take some getting used to for listeners who are unfamiliar with our (anti?)heroine, this new venture is as faithful to the character as fans could have hoped. Featuring a handful of delightful scenes which allow Triple-Zero to remind us all why we love his murderous tendencies, listeners are soon reminded just how important sound can be when stirring our imaginations.
The voice acting lends itself very well to the narrative with impressive performances found here from the majority of the cast. Emily Woo Zeller is a convincing and praise-worthy Aphra, Sean Kenin is a suitably-sociopathic Triple-Zero, and Marc Thompson is a worthy successor to the role of Darth Vader. One downfall of the voice work is the inclusion of the trio of heroes who are synonymous with this far, far away galaxy. Despite their best efforts none of the actors portraying Luke, Han, and Leia do so to a degree which would be considered seamless coming from their live-action appearances. While this has no impact on the actual story per se, it does unfortunately take the listener out of the moment and forces them to readjust.
The story itself moves along at a swift pace which somehow manages to never feel rushed. Framed as a series of flashbacks from the perspective of a later Aphra retelling her escapades to a voice recorder, the listener benefits from enjoying her adventure while also being exposed to some of her regretful hindsight which comes after the fact. This includes, but is not limited to, a touching apology to her former lover Sana Starros which is beautifully acted-out by Zeller.
Clocking in at nearly half the length of Audible’s recent venture The Sandman and being more akin to their trilogy of Alien audio drama adaptations in length, Doctor Aphra still manages to pack an awful lot in to its disappointingly-light runtime. Unfortunately, it is still beat-for-beat almost identical to her first appearances in comic book form despite promises to the contrary. For a universe as expansive as that of Star Wars and a blank canvas painted by the original source material, one would have hoped that the additional narrative content would have been a bit more substantive than what is presented here. Although constrained by the course of events that are set in stone, given that this piece is surely designed to attract new readers to the character it would have been prudent to offer more than close to the exact same story that has already existed for nearly five years in print even if that meant upping the runtime.
Nevertheless, if it were not for the promise of an expanded story which goes relatively unfulfilled there would be little to fault in this audio drama. Gripes with the original heroic trio aside, it offers both stellar performances for the most part, amazing sound effects throughout, and a narrative which keeps you on the edge of your seat. If the production quality of Doctor Aphra is any indication of things to come, fans will surely be clamouring for other fan favourite characters who have yet to receive the live-action treatment to step into the recording booth.
All in all, Doctor Aphra is a fine audio drama which Random House Audio can be proud of. Despite its shortcomings in certain guest performances and a promise of more content which did not quite reach expectations, it still manages to offer a thrilling adventure from a unique perspective. Augmented by pitch-perfect performances from its main cast and sound effects which bring immersion to new heights, this is one story that effortlessly takes your imagination far, far away.
Putting a feminist spin on Arthurian legend as the fabled Lady of the Lake takes centre stage, Cursed dismantles expectations and builds a new mythos that satisfies and excites.
Nowadays it comes as no surprise to hear that media giant Netflix have commissioned yet another comic book adaptation, however this time around there is not a superhero cape in sight. There are, however, a collection of mythical figures who all come together to form a pantheon of legends. Its original source material written by Tom Wheeler and illustrated by Frank Miller is toted as a reimagining rather than an adaptation, and that assertion could not be more appropriate. Building off the skeletal framework of English mythology a new story emerges for a new generation, and unlike previous failed attempts in live-action this one has left us wanting more.
In this series we meet Nimue, the legendary Lady of the Lake. She is our protagonist and at this stage in her life she is far from the fabled figure found in dusty old books. Instead she is a young woman who is still mastering the destructive powers which are afforded to her by the Fey blood which runs through her veins.
She and her friend Pym are desperate to get away from their relatively sheltered life at home, but for Nimue it is significantly harder due to the deep-seated discrimination which is rampant throughout England. This is a result of the religious zealotry practiced by the Red Paladins who hunt and kill her kind, a group who serve as the main villains of the series. After a vicious attack on their village she is forced to flee and barely escapes with her life thanks to the formidable force that is her family’s Sword of Power, otherwise known as Excalibur by Arthurian myth aficionados.
The first episode of the series makes excellent use of its time and introduces us to a world that already feels lived in. For a non-HBO television series it boasts striking cinematography and set pieces, although the premiere itself contains the odd jarringly-different shot which can take you out of the moment. This issue does not persist throughout the rest of the series, however, and it makes up for it with fantastic use of both CGI and practical effects.
It is not long before the action revs into high gear and a collective of Arthur, Merlin, Sir Gawain and many more join the fray. Uther Pendragon and Morgana also round out the known figures of myth, with a few more hidden throughout the series that are only revealed to those with season-long patience.
In the world of Cursed the order of things is at a tipping-point. Pendragon is hoping to seize power with the aid of a washed-up Merlin, meanwhile the Red Paladins and the ferocious Weeping Monk leave devastation in their wake wherever they go. Early on in the series Nimu and Arthur join forces in a relationship which initially leaves them at odds with one another, but over time develops into one of mutual respect and compassion.
This powder keg is eventually ignited as the walls close in around Nimue’s Fey found family and she is forced to make a choice which changes the course of her life. Now the beloved Fey Queen, the appointed leader who will lead them against their oppressors, Nimue takes this appointment in her stride at first, but becomes increasingly reliant on the sword’s power which brings complications of its own.
By and large the series is a thoroughly enjoyable watch which quickly diverges from the assumed course of events that an Arthurian legend story would pursue. The premise is intriguing and its execution is on point, with a brilliant performance from Katherine Langford in the starring role carrying the show at times. The ten episode order allows the narrative to progress at a steady pace while never feeling rushed, and by the end of the series a satisfying conclusion has been reached which will leave fans clamouring for a potential second season. One major criticism is that at times the character of Nimue stagnates, leaving the viewer occasionally far more interested in the character arcs of Pym, Merlin, and Arthur, who all have much less screen time.
Performance-wise this series knocks it out of the park with everyone involved putting on a stellar show. Gustaf Skarsgård is particularly impressive as the morose Merlin, who after a long life full of tragedy and regrets is almost ready to call curtains on his role on life’s stage before crossing paths with Nimue. Devoid of his powers for the majority of the series save for the odd stunning outburst he is by far the most interesting member of the eclectic cast. The Weeping Monk comes in at a close second although ultimately it is Nimue who is developed the most, and rightly so.
By the time the credits have begun to roll in the finale the stage is set for a much more ambitious and thrill-fuelled sequel. Looking good on paper, in reality this is the television equivalent of a monkey’s paw. Yes, excitement for the future is high and everyone will be talking about those final five minutes for a long time to come. The flip side of this situation is that those final five minutes gave us a taste of what this fledgling season could have been like, and the widened scope for season two which the writers clearly have in mind makes what we have just watched feel just a little bit irrelevant. When the screen fades to black it is almost as if the viewer has just finished watching a prequel written after the fact rather than the beginning of a new series.
Nevertheless, it cannot be overstated how enjoyable the series is once you become invested in its horde of characters. With so many different subplots unfolding it can at times be difficult to keep track of things, but once events start to overlap and the gang finally forms everything starts to fall into place. From a technical standpoint the series is applause-worthy, from its cinematography to practical effects to the charming animated transitions.
In conclusion, Cursed is the YA fantasy series which Netflix needs alongside The Witcher to compete in a post-Game of Thrones world where every streaming service is trying to fill the void left in its wake. Its technical and performative achievements outweigh the occasional lull in proceedings, and with a bit of fine-tuning in the interim a prospective second season is sure to wow both fans of the series and also its initial nay-sayers.
It has been over thirty years since the game changer that was The Sandman first hit the shelves of comic book stores the world over, the brainchild of fantasy maestro Neil Gaiman. Is it any wonder, then, that an audio adaptation is nothing short of spectacular?
Prior to 1989 only those who were versed in their Greek myths would have any idea who Morpheus is, and even at that he would be considered relatively obscure. Enter Neil Gaiman, who took the Lord of Dreams and catapulted him to stardom with a seminal, award-winning run of comic books which to this day captures the imagination of readers the world over. Testament to its popularity a live-action adaptation is currently in the works at Netflix, who are toting the fact that it will be their most expensive series to date. In the interim, however, Audible have treated us to the first in a series of audio dramas which will each adapt a handful of volumes from the now thirty-year-old odyssey.
Surprising no one, the subsidiary of Amazon have continued their streak of Audible Original dramas being the benchmark in the realm of auditory entertainment. Presided over by the phenomenal Dirk Maggs, who by now has an impressive list of directorial credits under his belt, a huge cast of A-list actors have come together to bring this tale of revenge and turmoil to life in the most magical way possible.
Fittingly narrated by Gaiman himself, we follow the story of Morpheus after being imprisoned for the span of a human lifetime in a glass cage by power-hungry cultists. James McAvoy slips effortlessly into the starring role, conveying the pain of suffering, the rage of vengeance and the soft touch of compassion sometimes all in the same scene in a way that is reminiscent of his role in the 2016 film Split and its sequel, Glass. This is made all the more impressive when it is taken into consideration that he was force to record all of his lines in isolation, directed by Maggs via video call. Such is the skill of both director and actor that this fact would go unnoticed to the uninformed, particularly during the touching scenes between Morpheus and his sister, Death, who is played by Kat Dennings.
Joining our pair of anthropomorphised abstract concepts are stellar performances by Riz Ahmed, Aaron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, and a legion of others too numerous to mention by name. While McAvoy is present for the majority of the tale, other actors drift in and out of the narrative as minor and side characters who weave a web which ultimately culminates in a character study of an entity who has existed since the dawn of creation. As Death states towards the end of the production, when the last life in the universe has been snuffed out she will put the metaphorical chairs up on the table and lock the door behind her. For Morpheus, for the eponymous Sandman whose name is said in hushed whispers, he needs something to fill his time until that happens.
After the first hour-long chapter, when Morpheus has finally regained his freedom, a mission is undertaken to retrieve his treasured possessions which have since fallen into the hands of demons, deranged escapees of Arkham Asylum, and former associates of supernatural superhero John Constantine. Make no mistake, however; while this story inhabits the world of DC, its comic book roots only briefly raise its head to facilitate certain aspects of the narrative before it races down a very different path. Having said that, fans of fantasy who have never read a comic book in their life can still pick up their earphones and enjoy this drama safe in the knowledge that any necessary context is provided within the narrative and that it is very much self-contained.
At the same time, being self-contained does not leave the narrative constrained in any way. Originating in a solely visual medium, some would question the validity of an adaptation which does the opposite and foregoes visual cues entirely. These concerns are alleviated very early on, as not only are the flawless performances accompanied by a guiding narration from the original creator, but also by pitch-perfect sound effects and foley artistry. From creaky doors to taunting eyeball-chewing courtesy of The Corinthian to the perfectly-orchestrated introductions at the beginning of each chapter, every second is a joy to listen to as a world is built around our keen ears.
Spinning out of the main narrative are a number of side stories which at first appear meandering and pointless before eventually coming full-circle and revealing more layers to the Morpheus figure, the most enjoyable of which is the centenary visits to a London pub with a man who was given immortality many centuries ago.
Although it is unclear how many more instalments are planned in this series of adaptations, if the eventual sequels are even half as entertaining and enthralling as this first foray into the dreamscape then fans of the source material are in for a treat. With Dirk Maggs at the helm and Neil Gaiman himself being ever-present in the production, the future escapades of Morpheus are only going to get stranger, increasingly more distressing, and ultimately more touching and satisfying. With his many awards speaking for themselves, this venture could easily result in a lasting voice acting legacy for James McAvoy in the title role.
The Sandman hits the ground running with an opening chapter that introduces listeners to the world these characters inhabits and then never slows down. From cultist manor houses to serial killer conventions and from medieval England to the depths of Hell itself, this is one odyssey which is worth sticking around for until the end.
Bending the western genre beyond almost all recognition with a sci-fi coat of paint, Red Noise is the best cowboy novel to see print in years.
Engineer-turned-author John P. Murphy may have just cracked the code on how to make cowboys in space anything other than ridiculous. While it may substitute a saddle-back horse for a spaceship and dust-filled 19th century Americana for a pitstop out amongst the stars, Red Noise is immediately flagged as the latest in a line of expectation-subverting westerns – in case you missed all of the other clues, the sprawling-yet-claustrophobic Station 35 is formally named after John Wayne himself.
When we first meet our protagonist, a hardened ex-military veteran whose body is riddled with cybernetic augmentations, she is making her way towards the nearest station which her dwindling fuel reserves can reach in order sell the ore she has spent months mining in solitude.
Referred to as ‘Jane’, short for Jane Doe, ‘Mickey’, short for Mickey Mouse, and more often than not as simply ‘the Miner’, we never learn a whole lot about this terrifyingly-cold warrior, which is exactly the way she prefers things. What we do learn an awful lot about, however, are the myriad of colourful characters who plague and enrich her life within the confines of Cpt John Wayne Koganusan Station, grandiosely named that instead of simply ‘cowboy fortress’. Ranging from a drunken, washed-up stationmaster to a three-way gang war for supremacy to all of the unfortunates caught up in the whirlwind of violence, Murphy has crafted a cast of characters who each bring something different to the table. Be it Takata’s sage observations, Ditz’s melancholy reflections, Feeney’s manic obsessions, Angelica’s string-pulling, or McMasterson’s moustache-twirling scheming, there is quite literally never a dull moment.
From the second our protagonist first steps foot on Station 35 she is getting the lay of the land, and it isn’t long before she realises that the whole damn place is rotten to the core, a core that needs to be excised with an expertly-wielded samurai sword. The parallels to works by such icons as Kurosawa are blatant, and we follow the Miner as she plays each of the three sides against each other while occasionally publicly switching sides herself. What ensues is an often-frenetic and sometimes-chaotic cacophony of violence which metaphorically splits the station in half, and almost manages it literally when the mythological heir-apparent Nuke struts back onto his turf in the wake of his sister’s bloodied wedding ceremony.
The book is not without its flaws, however. For every few minor character interactions which flesh out the world around us, there is one which breaks the pace of the narrative. While the story is well-crafted and keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, somewhere around the middle it starts to become middling before the tension and stakes return as it races into the final third. The book’s ending, though favourable, is a little bit too rushed to be as satisfying as it could have been. Then again, being fast-paced and abrupt is keeping itself consistent with everything else that came before it.
All things considered, this is still an excellent book which effortlessly transports you to a world beyond our current realm of possibility, while still making it entirely familiar because of the people who populate it. Although she may not be the female version of a John Wayne-esque cowboy, that probably suits the Miner right down to the ground – she is instead much more interesting and intimidating.