Amari and the Night Brothers Preview

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.

The UK cover of Amari and the Night Brothers from Egmont

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.

Author B. B. Alston

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.

Marsai Martin, photo courtesy of Getty.

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.

Finale Score: 10/10

Cursed Season One Review

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.

Nimue and Pym, best friends and the catalysts for two intertwined narratives

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 sword’s power is both tempting and corrupting

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.

The main power couple of the kingdom

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.

A compelling interpretation of Merlin who is hopefully given more to do in future seasons

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.

Daniel Sharman channeling his inner Victor Von Doom for The Weeping Monk

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.

Final Score: 8/10

The Sandman Audio Drama Review

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.

Neil Gaiman

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.

The legion of cast members who made this production a reality

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.

The Lord of Dreams wearing a dreamcatcher and looking dreamy

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.

The source material for a touching and hilarious reunion between Death and Morpheus

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.

Final Score: 10/10

Artemis Fowl Review

Unfortunately for fans of the original series of books, no, it wasn’t.

On paper a film adaptation of Artemis Fowl by Irish author Eoin Colfer sounds like a no-brainer for a studio like Disney to premiere on their streaming service. A young protagonist for children to connect with, a slew of well-developed adult characters for parents to appreciate, and a multi-award winning narrative which has spanned numerous sequels and holds great franchise potential at the cinema. Why, then, has this adaptation missed the mark by such a massive margin?

The film follows the titular character Artemis Fowl, who is a twelve-year-old genius from Ireland and the latest in a long line of criminal masterminds in his family.

James Bond Junior or Miniature Bond Villain?

Right off the bat the film adaptation veers in a completely different direction to the source material by making him a ‘good guy’ who is doing what he must in order to save his father rather than an outright villain who goes on to learn the error of his ways and become a good guy. This might have been an acceptable detour from the source material if the events of the movie justified the change by offering a great cinematic experience full of heart, laughs, and enjoyable action…unfortunately, however, it does not.

Clocking in at just over an hour and a half in length, the film zips past the audience at the speed of sound and does not stop for a moment to let any of it sink in while rarely ever leaving Fowl Manor. Jumping from one scene to the next and from one conflict to another, a number of different plotlines and character arcs are smushed together and justice is done to none of them. To make matters worse, the old adage of “show, don’t tell” is flipped on its head so severely that we are told a great many things about our protagonist with little evidence to back it up, while other characters are literally reduced to stating their emotions out-loud for all to hear rather than showing them through their actions.

Senior and Junior Artemis together again

Another victim of the film’s criminally low runtime and fast pace is the sacrificing of virtually every relationship except for the one between Artemis and his father.

Supporting characters are introduced and then rarely heard from again, others are put in mortal peril for dramatic effect despite the audience knowing little to nothing about them, and members of the main cast go from arch enemies to best friends so quickly that you become tempted to rewind the film in case you missed a crucial scene, but no such scene existed in the first place. As for the villain of the film and the McGuffin they so desperately seek the less that is said the better, as fans of the books will be disappointed by their depiction and newcomers will just be left baffled as to what their motivations actually are.

The two saving graces of this adaptation are the performances themselves and the CGI. Ferdia Shaw gives a good performance as Artemis for his onscreen acting debut, and Lara McDonnell performs well as Holly despite her condensed character arc. Colin Farrell and Judi Dench are great additions to the cast as they usually are more often than not, and Josh Gad’s comic relief saves many scenes from being utterly forgettable. Criminally, we do not see enough of Tamara Smart or Nonso Anozie as Juliet and Domovoi Butler, respectively, to judge fairly. The special effects teams should be applauded for their work, making every fight scene, underworld fairy kingdom, and rampaging troll look stunning. One highlight of the film is a rarely-extended sequence involving a rogue troll terrorising an Italian wedding before a taskforce of fairies takes him down and wipes the guests’ memories, however we are soon returned to the disappointment that is the rest of the film.

The not-quite Fantastic Four of this film

All in all, it would be fair to say that this is far from director Kenneth Branagh’s finest work. How much of the blame lies on his shoulders, or on those of the screenwriters, or even on the studio itself, is difficult to discern. What is clear to see, however, is that the best advice for anyone intrigued by the film’s premise is to instead pick up the first book in the series and go from there. The slew of awards and legions of fans which the series of books can claim ownership of speaks for itself, and this ill-fated adaptation should not detract from that. With any luck an adaptation on the small screen will be commissioned to give the source material the love it deserves á la Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, although ideally without a near-decade-long wait in-between.

Final Score: 2/10

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