Memories of Ice, by Steven Erikson – A Review

Epic fantasy. No. EPIC fantasy. Really big. Epic. Fantasy. Look, it’s 1180 pages long. You get the idea…

Memories_of_IceReviewing a Steven Erikson novel is, I’d imagine, a bit like trying to sum up climbing an exceptionally high mountain.  On some level, the experience has been arduous, but nothing can quite beat that sense of achievement and, oh, the memories, the moments of heart-pounding excitement and unexpected beauty…  And that view!

Memories of Ice is third in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series, but comparing it to either of its two predecessors is a futile task. Despite the fact that they’re all huge slabs of second world fantasy and there are some tonal and thematic similarities, they are all very much their own gigantic, quivering beasts.  Memories of Ice takes place more or less directly after the events of the first novel Gardens of the Moon, in which the Malazan army led by Dujek Onearm is tasked with capturing the city of Darujhistan, the culmination of a long and bloody campaign on the continent of Genebackis. At the start of the third novel, Dujek has apparently gone rogue, forging an alliance with former enemies Kallor, Caladan Brood and Anamander Rake, the enigmatic ancient ruler of Moon’s Spawn.  The alliance is necessary because a new power has appeared in the south of the continent, a fanatic cult led by a powerful Seer, who is himself a front for an older, malevolent power. In the face of this evil, old enmities must be set aside and a desperate race to relieve the siege of Capustan, an independent city halfway between Darujhistan and the Seer’s capital city of Coral, forms much of the matter of the first third of the novel.  It’s absorbing and entertaining stuff.  A novel of this size has plenty of scope for sub-plots and diversions and Erikson is in no great hurry to present us with the novel’s first big action set piece.  It’s a good job that his world building and characterisation is so exceptionally good, then.

The appearance of recurring characters like Rake, Dujek and his cadre of elite engineers, the Bridgeburners, led by the nobleborn, god-touched Captain Paran and the taciturn but eminently likeable Whiskeyjack is reassuring, but Erikson has plenty of new characters to throw into the mix, too.  The caravan guard, Gruntle, and his comrades Stonny and Buke; the very creepy Broach and Bauchelain, along with their longsuffering manservant Emancipor Reese; the officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company; Lady Envy and her enigmatic Seguleh companions; the Mhybe and Silverfox, tribal messiah-girl and the reincarnation of four separate spirits: all of these have significant roles to play in the narrative and, through Erikson’s remarkable ear for believable dialogue, they live vividly in the reader’s imagination as the story unfolds.

Erikson’s training in archaeology accounts at least in part for his detailed, layered world-building. History matters in the Malazan books; it influences the actions of the characters and binds them to specific places in often uncomfortable ways.  This then lends the events of the novel considerable weight. When certain places are destroyed or changed, when certain characters emerge in answer to ancient needs or manipulations, the descriptions are replete with meaning. The world of the novels is being changed by the actions of the characters within them; this is not a heroic preservation of the status quo, but rather a brave attempt by our viewpoint characters to mitigate the effects of the changes taking place around them. This measured, layered approach – this making real a world of pure fantasy – is one of the most impressive achievements of the series and this novel in particular.

It is, I’m afraid, far outside the scope of this review to summarise the story in its entirety. Suffice to say that there are two major (and by ‘major’, I mean ‘massive and jaw-droppingly good’) military actions in the novel and Erikson is adept at not only describing the tactics and strategy involved but also conveying with an almost visceral intensity those moments when the allies’ plans encounter the enemy and are shredded into an incoherent full-blooded mess.  Erikson adds another layer of mystery and intrigue, however, with the revelation that at least some of the participants in the combat have attracted the attention of this world’s gods and, indeed, he frequently reminds us that there is a partially hidden conflict taking place whose roots are ancient and sunk deep into a rich earth of malice and vengeance.

All of which sounds pretty dark.  And it is. The Seer delights in torture and feeds his growing army with the bodies of his enemies; what happens to the Mhybe is heartbreaking, and there are some moments of genuine horror. That said, Erikson’s tone is nowhere near as nihilistic as, say, George R R Martin’s in Game of Thrones. In fact, in some senses, Erikson is the ‘anti-Martin’.  His world is as layered and politically complex (although in a different way; Erikson’s gods are much more proactive than Martin’s seem to be[1]) as Westeros, but his characters are not quite as self-serving or venal. Betrayal happens in the Malazan books, but so does heroism, although that heroism almost always carries a (sometimes unforeseen) cost.  It’s here, I feel, that Erikson particularly excels.  No one quite writes heroic moments like him.  And I’m not talking cheesy cartoony heroics either.  I’m talking… well, I’m talking about Itkovian, mostly.

Itkovian starts Memories of Ice as one of the commanding officers of the Grey Swords mercenary company who have agreed to help defend the city of Capustan.  It’s a tough contract, not only because the city is facing a vastly superior force of cannibalistic religious fanatics, but also because it’s ruled by a council of squabbling priests.  The Grey Swords are sworn to the service of Fener, the Boar of War, whose power is waning (and whom the reader has already encountered in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates). There is a sense of noble futility to all the Grey Swords; their religious vows mean they will see out their contract despite the seeming impossibility of the task. Itkovian, however, is the Shield Anvil, granted the power to bear the grief, sorrow and pain of the mortals around him. This gift is extended to his enemies as well as his allies and the siege of Capustan provides one of the most powerful moments in the series so far when Itkovian offers to take the pain of Anaster, First Seed, leader of the Tenescowri, the peasant army that has successfully assaulted the city. It is an understated moment of raw compassion that it is quite hard to imagine appearing in A Song of Ice and Fire; as powerful as it is, however, it is also a foreshadowing of a much more significant moment later on in the book.

It is characters like Itkovian that, just as much as the stunning action set pieces, make this novel so memorable and, yes, moving.  I’ve said elsewhere that I’m a romantic, despite my occasional attempts to present a cynical front to the world. That said, I don’t want fairy tale endings or tired cliché; I appreciate moral complexity, characters finding their heroism in difficult circumstances, characters stumbling and falling. But, I also want to see redemption; I want to see the possibility of compassion triumphing over selfishness. I want, in short, for my fantasy stories to have at least some measure of hope. This is what Erikson provides here. In the middle of the devastation and loss (and at least a couple of important characters won’t be reappearing after this book – except in flashback!), in a setting that is rich in history and the tragedy that has shaped it, there remains a glimmer of hope. Characters change; characters learn. It is for this reason, along with the excellent world-building and exciting writing, that I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it.

[1] Okay. Confession time. I’ve only managed to make it through one and a half novels of Martin’s admittedly impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series, for reasons that I might go into in a later post. I am not at all questioning Martin’s considerable skills as a writer.

Draw One In The Dark, by Sarah A Hoyt

Urban fantasy with a twist and a tough moral centre.

Draw One In The Dark

While I don’t particularly want to get into the brouhaha surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, I will admit that it’s piqued my interest in a number of authors of whom I had been only dimly aware. Sarah Hoyt is one of them and Draw One In The Dark is the first in a series of novels set in the Colorado town of Goldport.

The central character is Kyrie, a young waitress working in a cheap diner who just happens to have the power to shapeshift into a panther. Hoyt makes the quite sensible choice of not making this an origin story. Kyrie already knows (or at least suspects – she’s sort of in denial) that she can shift. This self-awareness is a trait shared by the two other main characters – Tom, a troubled young runaway who works at the same bar as Kyrie and Rafiel Trall, a local police officer who has been shifting for a good while and whose shapeshifted form is that of a ferocious, majestic lion.  In refusing to tell a story that is exclusively about how Kyrie or either of the other two characters discover their shapeshifting abilities, Hoyt shifts the focus onto how the characters discover each other, how they learn to trust one another and, eventually, how they work together.  That focus on character interaction is one of the novel’s real strengths.

That said, there is a mystery to unravel. Although the world of the shifters appears at first to be fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of depth to the book’s mythology, particularly during conversations in which some older shifters are discussing the origins of the book’s apparently ancient antagonist. Hoyt doesn’t reveal all the details but instead keeps enough back to hint at a much wider shadowy world – a world that is dangerous, violent and just plain weird.  (I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet that this book is the first urban fantasy novel to feature shapeshifting pheromone-flinging beetles.)

Although the plot starts slowly, it soon picks up pace and, I must say, never once did I feel that it dragged. The book’s action sequences are exciting and well-described and unusual coincidences early on in the novel are explained satisfactorily towards the end.  It’s the unfolding relationships between the central characters, however, that make the novel so entertaining. The will-they-won’t-they of Kyrie and Tom (which is complicated in a very entertaining way by the tempting presence of Trall), the very well-realised relationship between Tom and the father who kicked him out of the family home several years ago – these have an air of authenticity about them that makes the book eminently readable, even as the reader’s (well, this reader’s at any rate) mind is coming to terms with the more fantastical and outlandish sections of the narrative.

In addition, Draw One In The Dark is a novel with a clear sense of morality. Characters are aware of the potential consequences of their actions and often seek to do the right thing, despite that choice appearing to be less convenient. Perhaps more significantly, characters are offered the chance of redemption and, by and large (and with one or two hiccoughs along the way), they take them. Call me an old-fashioned romantic, but I kind of like that.

Overall, then, Draw One In The Dark is a fast-paced, well-crafted novel, populated with a relatively small cast of mostly three-dimensional characters (I’m a little unsure about Keith, but Hoyt writes him with such panache, I’ll forgive him his quick acceptance of the madness into which he’s been plunged) who are genuinely engaging and with whom it is very easy to identify.  The story hangs together really well, while leaving a few background threads dangling free to be picked up in later volumes. Speaking of which, I read this book on my Kindle.  It is part of Baen’s free e-book initiative which puts out a selection of the initial novels in some of their authors’ series for free, which demonstrates an impressive confidence in the skills of the company’s authors.  Well, Baen’s cunning ploy worked on this occasion, because the second book in this series, Gentleman Takes A Chance, is purchased, downloaded and ready to read.  And if that isn’t a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.

Arak: Son of Thunder, issue 2

We like comics in our house. I am, of course, entirely to blame for this.  My obsession with comics, particularly those of the American variety, began in the early 80s and has continued on-and-off into my adult life.  My younger son seems to have inherited my comic geekery.  He’s just turned 18 and celebrated by spending a sizeable amount of money on some very nice comic collections from the ‘big two’. I’m kind of jealous, actually. He has way more disposable income than I do and two very sturdy sets of shelves in his room stocked liberally with trade paperbacks, original graphic novels and, most impressive of all, a smattering of those over-sized omnibus editions that look so beautiful it almost makes you want to weep.

What he doesn’t have, though, is a copy of Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2.  First published by DC in 1981 and written by Roy and Dann Thomas, Arak: Son of Thunder was a sword and sorcery series set in the Dark Ages. Its titular hero is a Native American who, as a boy, finds himself marooned in the middle of the Atlantic where he is discovered by Vikings one of whom ends up adopting him.  While Arak has some superficial similarity to a certain dark-haired Cimmerian whose adventures Thomas had been chronicling for much of the preceding decade at Marvel, the comic’s nominally real world setting, its growing band of recurring characters and, perhaps most importantly, the more reflective character of Arak himself meant that the title was never going to be a straightforward Conan clone.

That's a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it'd be... perfect.

That’s a proper cover, that is. All you need is a word balloon and then it’d be… perfect.

That said, issue 2 gives us a tale that could, with just a little tweaking, have appeared during Thomas’ run on Conan the Barbarian.  The issue starts with Arak, having set off from the Northumbrian monastery that was the setting for much of the first issue, running aground on rocks off the coast of France. It’s a moody, dramatic opening which successfully establishes the tone of the story while giving away nothing whatsoever as regards its main plot.  It does, however, serve as a useful reminder of the storytelling skills of both Thomas and co-creator Ernie Colon (who would go on to create the Amethyst comic for DC), whose artwork, embellished with some generally very impressive inking from Tony DeZuniga, is, as we’ll see, one of the highlights of the early Arak run. (DeZuniga would later take on the art duties all by himself; artists such as Ron Randall and Adrian Gonzales also had stints on the title.)  The opening page’s narration (remember those heady days when narration in comics was still a thing?) takes the form of a fairly simple Native American fable. Along with the art, though, it’s not only an economical piece of storytelling but it also reminds the reader of Arak’s Native American heritage while also reinforcing how integral the symbolism of the storm is to his character. It’s clever and relatively subtle.

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

Arak looks surprised to see all those names carved into the jagged, life-threatening rocks. Who can blame him?

On page 2, Thomas’ narration settles into a more familiar tenor. It’s present tense, slightly overbearing and somewhat melodramatic, although there are nice flashes of more poetic description that remind us that Thomas is actually a very fine comics writer. “Beneath the breakers, jagged rocks lurk, like the furtive daggers of assassins” is particularly good and the “dawn-flecked boot” that prods him awake at the bottom of the page possesses an unexpected gentleness that, it turns out, is entirely appropriate, given that the aforementioned boot belongs to a beautiful young woman who just happens to be out walking the beach with her silent armour-suited guards.

The mysterious beauty in question is, we find out, Corinna (I do love fantasy names. Whether she ever goes a-maying is, sadly, never divulged) the daughter of Lord Hessa, owner of the large castle near the shoreline that Arak initially mistakes as belonging to Charlemagne, the focus of his current quest. The conversation between them establishes her as being somewhat haughty with a hint of flirtatiousness and Arak as being naïve, direct and, at the bottom of the page when he grabs Corinna’s cloak in order to emphasise his point, socially inept bordering on the point of rudeness. (Well, he is a Viking – sort of. And he has just been shipwrecked.) Needless to say, Corinna looks on this with some disapproval and one of her silent guards intervenes. And then we have our first fight.

I’m not sure who it was who pioneered the technique of figures ‘breaking out’ of the panel borders during action sequences (I’m tempted to say it was Kirby, but don’t take my word for it), but Colon uses it effectively here. While the guards are lumbering iron brutes, Colon draws Arak fighting with speed and ferocity. He takes down two of the guards but is knocked unconscious by the third and taken to the castle. So far so straightforward.  That said, the final piece of narration on page 5 (“All in all, it’s been a most unusual morning for everyone.”) is jarringly whimsical after such an energetic and violent scene.

There's some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of... spare, aren't they?

There’s some nice artwork here, but those backgrounds are kind of… spare, aren’t they?

The story then sags a bit, although there’s some very nice artwork to lift things. Arak is questioned by Lord Hessa, an interrogation that continues at the prompting of his daughter. (Note, incidentally, that on page 7, her throne is drawn as being just a little higher than his. Significant, that.) Arak gives a truncated account of his origin before the narrator gives the reader a much fuller account via an internal monologue-flashback that is mostly unnecessary given all of this only happened one issue ago. Hessa is unimpressed with Arak’s tales (his comment that Arak “weave[s] tales like tapestries” seems odd given that he hasn’t heard the more outlandish aspects of Arak’s story like we have) and orders him thrown into his castle’s donjon, because he thinks our hero’s a spy for Carolus Magnus. Needless to say, Arak’s not particularly taken with that idea and a scuffle breaks out which unintentionally reveals one of our first big clues as to what’s really going on. Hessa, who has been wearing some very nice white gloves (a la Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) throughout the interrogation, actually has (also like Olaf Pooley in the Doctor Who story Inferno) a very hairy hand (the left one, naturally). A monstrously hairy, wickedly clawed hand, in fact. Goodness me. What on earth is going on here?

Hessa is all for killing Arak outright – or, as he puts it, raking his monstrous hand “lovingly” across Arak’s unusually red skin – when his daughter stops him. This is the second time Corinna’s intervened in this scene. Hmmm.  Our attention is nicely directed away from the issue of who’s really in charge in the castle, however, when it’s revealed that those big suits of armour don’t have anyone in them. They appear to be animated by some malign magical force. Hey, this is getting pretty good.

When Arak is thrown into the castle’s dungeon, he (and we) meet the next significant character – Malagigi, a wizard from the court of Carolus Magnus who can make fire appear in his hand, but, whenever he gets close to revealing what’s really going on, breaks into a fit of coughing. Either he’s suffering from the most convenient case of consumption in all of fiction or… something weird is going on. In any event, Arak reveals a bit more about his background via his story-telling belt. And then things get interesting. Corinna shows up to help Arak escape because, well, I’m sure you can work it out for yourself.  “Did you really doubt I would come for you, wayfarer? I took you for one who could read a woman’s eyes.” along with “Do you know what it means, Arak, to  grow from maidenhood to womanhood without ever truly knowing a man till tonight?” are the salient pieces of dialogue, the latter being a great example of a question that is both leading and utterly rhetorical.

But this is a sword and sorcery comic. It’s not going to be this… ahem…easy for Arak, is it? No. Even Arak’s noticed that Corinna’s not exactly been acting like a lovesick girl and, indeed, the come-on above is far too studied to be delivered by an innocent. And in any case, we need some answers to questions like ‘What’s going on with those magical soldiers?’ and ‘Why does your dad have a weird hand?’ So, Corinna gives us the kind of answers that make you wish you hadn’t asked the questions in the first place. It’s a tale of a woman, her grandmother, who, tired of being the sexual plaything of ugly men of power, decided to get some power herself by entering into a pact with a devil which is sealed in a carnal union that resulted in Lord Hessa. That, however, is only the half the story. We get the rest of it after a fight between Arak, Hessa and his magically animated armour-guards in which a defeated Hessa refers to Corinna as… ‘mother’. The ‘grandmother’ in the story is actually Corinna. The devil has granted her immortality in return for her not being able to leave the area around the castle. Ah, this all makes sense now. There is no Lady Hessa because Hessa is Corinna’s son. This also explains why Hessa was always so ready to defer to Corrina earlier on in the story. And it also explains why Corinna’s attempts to play the innocent lovestruck girl were so rubbish. She’s been out of practice. Like fifty years out of practice. Now, devilish pacts are meat and drink for comics like Arak, but this one is unusually focused on the physical nature of the transaction. In that sense, it reminds me very much of the Warren comic magazines of the late 60s and 70s and not just because Colon did a lot of work for titles like Vampirella and Creepy. There’s a prurient tinge to the storytelling here that feels a bit out of place in a DC title. I’ll return to this later.

Hmmm. There's something really weird going on with this girl's arm..

Hmmm. There’s something really weird going on with this girl’s arm…

In any case, Corinna’s setting foot outside the area prescribed by the terms of her agreement with the devil Belial has some interesting consequences. Firstly, in his cell Malagigi stops coughing and, suddenly finding himself free of whatever spell-retarding force Corinna’s been employing against him, begins to use some serious magic. This results in the ground opening up half way through the battle between Arak and Hessa. This is not just any old fissure in the ground, though. Oh no. This, as Thomas and Colon delight in showing us on page 22, is a portal to Hell. (Or at least some weird timeshare satellite of it.) That’s impressive enough, but, for Corinna, there’s more bad news. She starts to age. Her leaving the plateau on which the castle has been built releases her from the enchantment that had conferred eternal youth onto her and she becomes a withered parody of her formerly beautiful self.

So far so predictable, but there’s a final – and let’s be honest, really unsettling – twist in the tale. Belial, the demon who had made the original bargain with Corinna all those years ago, having just toasted his son, appears to offer Corinna a second deal. He’ll restore her youth if she’ll consent to go with him back to Hell and set up house with him there. And she says… yes. There is to be no redemption, or sense that she’s learned anything from her original bargain. Just more naked ambition and vanity. Which is very human, actually, but, I think, unexpectedly dark for a fantasy story published by one of the big two at the start of the 80s. Malagigi shows up to explain everything (as plot expositors go, I’ve seen worse, but I’ve definitely seen better, too) and Arak – and perhaps the reader – is left wondering what the hell that was all about.

"I'll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you."

“I’ll have my offspring extra crispy, thank you.”

Arak: Son of Thunder #2, then, is an interesting comic mostly because it is a narrative produced by a number of not always complementary imperatives and influences. At the end of this issue, alongside a handy map of Europe and the Middle East in the time of Arak, there is a page long essay by Thomas in which he explains what his thinking was when making decisions like setting the series in a pseudo-historical rather than purely fantastical milieu. A couple of sentences jump out:

“[The Sword and Sorcery genre presented] limited roles for both men and women, especially the latter, who seemed all to be either luscious maidens, beauteous warriors, or astonishingly lovely witches.

“Eventually, as I got into the genre, I began to realize that this could all be fun in its way – and that, besides, its limits could be stretched, played with, even expanded here and there.”

In one sense, it could be argued that here Thomas has expanded on the clichéd role of women in fantasy fiction. While Corinna is superficially ‘lovely’, Belial (and, by extension, Thomas) gives her a choice of fates. Not much of one, admittedly, but it is a choice nevertheless. Her origin, too, highlights her desperation at an explicitly misogynistic and unequal society. That origin is not presented, however, in a way calculated to engender sympathy for Corinna (for one thing we don’t understand she’s talking about herself at the time and, when we do find out, the focus is on her lust for power); similarly, Arak’s astonishment at her choice both during and after the story’s denouement ensures that we don’t feel much sympathy for her then either. To what extent she ‘expands’ the stereotype of ‘astonishingly lovely witches’, then, remains to be seen.

Another imperative that influences the writing is the need to differentiate the setting from that of the Conan adventures that Thomas had spent so long penning. Again, to what extent the story succeeds in doing so remains to be seen. The action taking place in and around a seaside castle on an isolated plateau makes the story feel quite divorced from its historical setting despite the frequent references to the court of Carolus Magnus. Compared to the first issue in which Vikings, Christian monks, Northumbria and Native American culture all play an integral part in the story, the setting of “The Devil Takes A Bride” is less specific and consequently feels more dislocated from the wider setting of late 8th century Europe. Arak is not Conan here (for one thing he’s much less proactive), although his directness and ferocity certainly contain echoes of Robert E Howard’s most famous creation. The supernatural elements, the character of Corinna and the less defined setting all contribute, however, to the sense that this is a more generic story. (And when the genre is sword and sorcery, Conan probably is the benchmark at this point in time.)

That said, the story on the whole works well, not least because of the Colon/DeZuniga art team. While their backgrounds are somewhat sparse, their character work is impressive; Corinna is suitably vampish, and Arak is well-proportioned and, when called to action, a dynamic heroic figure. Adrienne Roy’s colours are, though, somewhat mixed. There’s impressive subtlety in, for example, the reflections of flame on Arak’s face when he stares horrified into Belial’s pit, but Arak’s leggings change colour at times as does Corrina’s dress.

On the whole, though, Arak: Son of Thunder issue 2 is an enjoyable comic book. If it wears its 70s influences a little too obviously and feels at times a bit too indebted to its illustrious barbaric competition at the House of Ideas, it can perhaps be forgiven. Its function as a vehicle for the introduction of Malagigi (who will become a regular companion of Arak for the next year or so) weighs it down somewhat, but there is a lot to like here and it does act as an interesting example of the small but popular sword and sorcery niche of the DC universe of the 1980s.

Attack on Titan – Horror Has A New (Grinning) Face

So, I’m late to the party, again. Attack on Titan has been a thing for at least eighteen months now. Never one to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, I’ve only just now started watching it (via Netflix) and… oh my goodness! Was there ever a show to grab you in a vice-like grip of terror, wonder and horrifying absurdity? No, I honestly don’t think there was. But there is now.

I’m six episodes in and find the whole thing utterly mesmerising. Somehow, it connects with me on an almost pure animalistic emotional level and bypasses the more rational parts of my brain almost completely. Do human beings possess a deep-seated racial fear of being stalked by forty-foot tall naked zombies? Perhaps they do – some residual fear of dinosaurs, perhaps, mixed with a weird Freudian aversion to nudity. Who knows? Whatever the reason, this ridiculous anime about the last remnants of humanity huddling together in a single gigantic settlement behind massive walls that still don’t manage to be high enough to keep their clothing-averse idiot-grinning giant predators at bay manages to be thoroughly engaging, tremendously exciting and utterly terrifying in more or less equal measure.

That's not good, really, is it?

That’s not good, really, is it?

What follows is spoilerish (for the first six episodes).

The first episode sets the tone. In it, we are introduced to the main character Eren and an (older?) girl who lives with him (Mikasa), as well as their bookish friend, Armin. We are also introduced to the world these characters inhabit which appears at first to be renaissance/pre-Industrial Revolution era Europe with its tudor-esque architecture. That world is fleshed out in effective economical fashion, as the necessary character introductions are interspersed with scenes of the Scout Regiment’s foray into the world beyond the walls that protect humanity and later scenes of them returning, their mission failed and many of their number dead, missing or horribly injured. The meeting between the Scout force leader and a mother of one of their fallen comrades gives an early indication that, for all its characters’ typical anime cuteness, this is not going to be light-hearted fare. And so it proves…

Eren is a feisty youngster who views the walls that protect him and the rest of humanity from a danger that mostly exists in the abstract as a constriction rather than a blessing.  While Eren’s father has secrets that he promises to divulge to his son once he gets back from the interior, Eren reveals that he wants to join the Scout Regiment (despite having witnessed their ignominious return), from which ambition Eren’s mother is determined to dissuade him. Mother and son argue and you think (or at least I did) that you’re watching the setting out of a certain type of anime hero’s character path and then it all goes to hell.

The last ten minutes or so of the first episode are insane. Events spiral out of control frighteningly quickly and the show gives us horror after horror after horror, all rendered in some of the most beautiful and startlingly kinetic animation I’ve seen in a long long while. Once the event that renders Eren’s argument with his mother almost entirely moot happens, you finally understand what type of show you’re watching. ‘Predictable’ and ‘safe’ – these are words that you simply cannot apply to Attack on Titan.

The second episode widens the scope of the action very successfully. We find out that the district overrun in the first episode is part of a much larger walled settlement. We also find out that it has been deliberately constructed to concentrate the titans’ attacks on that specific spot. We see the panic and desperation of a large scale evacuation in the face of an implacable foe. There is nothing cosy about this. It is harrowing, disturbing stuff and calls to mind my teenage imaginings upon reading War of the Worlds or, if you’re into Warhammer 40,000, Dan Abnett’s exceptional siege novel Necropolis. We are also not spared the hierarchical nature of the human world ofAttack on Titan, in which refugees are despised as weak and those with food and resources feel entitled to lord it over those who do not. It is, at times, very uncomfortable viewing, not least because it reminds us far too pointedly of the inequalities and injustices of the real world.

The third and fourth episodes see a 5 year leap forward. Our heroes have grown up somewhat and have entered training in the army.  It is an unexpected, but not unwelcome, change of tack and, for a brief moment or two, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that the show was going to settle down into a more traditional all-friends-together-against-the-big-enemy type of anime show with characters conforming to certain anime archetypes (including the always-hungry girl – what the hell is that about, anyway?). And then the ending to episode four hits and, dammit, the show does it again. It takes what you were getting comfortable with and scrunches it up into a big ball and hits you on the head with it. This continues into episode five which provides several jaw-dropping moments in quick succession. It is insane, disturbing, absolutely riveting stuff.

Attack on Titan, then, is an anime I will definitely be sticking with. At times, the animation is breathtaking. Fight sequences between titans and zip-line wielding soldiers are presented as exhilarating, swooping flights into action. (Or, as is the case with episode five, heartbreaking tragedy.) The architectural solidity of the setting is absolutely essential to maintaining the authenticity of the story and the designers have done an incredible job here.  Walls are high and thick, and when they are smashed down, the resulting devastation is satisfyingly huge. The crowning achievement, though, is the design of the titans themselves. Put bluntly, on paper giant-naked-smiling-sexless-cannibal really shouldn’t work. Realised, however, that concept has been mined for every single one of its disturbing, unsettling possibilities. The sight of a titan ungainly running towards a crowd of humans like an overexcited toddler, an idiot smile plastered on its huge face takes absurdity into new realms of horror. One of the most memorable moments of the first episode is one in which a soldier, desperate to regain his honour, runs towards a titan with the intention of taking it down only to pause in mid-charge as he realises just what it is that he is facing. The animators fade out the surrounding scenery around him leaving him alone in a darkness that represents not only the shadow the titan casts over him but also the sheer futility of even thinking of taking it on. That sense of hopelessness is what makes the price of heroism in the show so ridiculously high and the show itself so utterly compelling. The titans may be a weird absurd concept but they are played absolutely straight and the result is a threat which is nightmarishly relentless and the cornerstone on which a truly unique and incredibly involving anime series is built. Whatever else Attack on Titan is, it is bloody terrifying. And I love it. :)

He doesn't want to be your friend.

He doesn’t want to be your friend.

Graham Joyce’s ‘The Silent Land’

The Silent LandSome of my colleagues are off skiing with their students at the moment, actually, so it seems entirely appropriate that I look at a novel by one of my favourite authors which deals with skiing. And life, love and death, too, obviously…

The Silent Land is one of the late Graham Joyce’s last novels.  Published in 2011, three years before his untimely death in September of last year, it is a mature, contemplative work, which takes a simple premise and, through a compelling mix of deft plotting and a slow accumulation of detail, turns it into something profound and moving.

I’ve liked Joyce ever since I read The Tooth Fairy, a criminally neglected coming-of-age novel that takes the tooth fairy myth and does something disturbing, magical and ultimately life-affirming with it.  Like Jonathan Carroll, his work often inhabits the grey, difficult to define hinterland where fantasy, horror and contemporary fiction meet and mingle.

The Silent Land appears, at first, to be about a young married couple, Zoe and Jake, who are on a skiing holiday in the French Pyrenees and are caught up in an avalanche.  The pair manage to free themselves only to find that their village is deserted.  As the novel progresses, the true nature of the couple’s situation becomes increasingly obvious to the reader and, eventually, to Zoe and Jake themselves.  While there remains an element of mystery about their circumstances right up until the last chapter, that mystery is not really the primary focus of the novel.  Rather, it provides the blank canvas on which Joyce paints a compelling examination of what it means to be, well, together.

Zoe and Jake are likeable characters and Joyce does a good job giving them their own distinct voices.  They disagree, they bicker, they keep secrets from one another, but their love towards one another is never in doubt.  Ultimately that love is not so much defined by physical or emotional intimacy (although there’s a lot of both) but more by their commitment to each other’s welfare.  This is even true of Jake’s last act in the novel which seems to be a betrayal but turns out to be something much more selfless.  The Silent Land’s determined focus on this central relationship could, in lesser hands, have led to a story too loosely structured, too devoid of tension to be interesting.  While there are moments in the first third of the novel where the story seems to meander a little, Joyce dripfeeds enough small but significant moments of revelation to keep the plot from stalling.

Joyce’s prose is elegant but never ostentatious and key motifs are reintroduced at significant moments in often powerful ways.  His restraint in the use of flashbacks is also appreciated by this reader.  When they are deployed in the last third of the novel, they are extraordinarily moving with Jake’s memories of his father’s death being particularly powerful.  There are moments of genuine uncanny horror, too.  Zoe sees and hears things that Jake cannot.  These moments of increased perception are disturbing and nightmarish.  They obviously possess symbolic meaning but remain, for Zoe at least, frustratingly difficult to interpret.  This difficulty with interpretation is, perhaps, the hardest trick of all for Joyce to pull off.  Zoe and Jake are not stupid (in fact, in some respects, they’re very intelligent characters), but their instinctive desire to be together dulls their capacity to think through some of the implications of what they’re experiencing.

And that is one of the main points of the novel, perhaps the last point before the story’s climax: as much as being in love means wanting to be together, there also comes a time when the right thing to do – the loving thing to do – is to let the other person go.

The novel’s ending is, quite frankly, astonishing in its simple power.  Plot elements introduced much earlier in the story are tied up with impressive skill and sentimentality is avoided with the same neatness and deftness of touch that, to be fair, Joyce has displayed all novel long.  Although dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter, the novel ends up being about life – about its value, about its fragility, about its phenomenal strength.

And speaking of strength, The Silent Land is a book that reminded me again of Joyce’s strengths as a writer – of his skill at writing flawed, believable characters, of his skill at producing subtle moments of unexpected disquiet.  More importantly, however, the book reminded me of why we need literature, why we need stories, why we need things that are not true – that can never, in fact, be true – to remind us of the truths that we forget.

Another week, another Ofsted story

My hatred for Ofsted has been well-documented elsewhere.  Below are some musings on a situation currently unfolding at a local college not a million miles away from me.  For various reasons, I’ve not shared links or names in this post, although I suppose if you know me well enough, you’ll have little difficulty in working out what I’m talking about.  I’m not claiming to have all the answers either.  Education is not always straightforward – either as an experience or an institution – and there are no easy answers.  As with most things, I think it’s a question of degree.  Group work, peer assessment, investigative work: they all have their place, but as part of a balanced pedagogical approach.  The unpleasantly dogmatic approach to favoured styles of learning (which they deny they have) from Ofsted has led us to a point where we now think we know what good teaching looks like and, actually, we still don’t really have much of a clue.  Anyway, here we go…

For those who don’t know, my local sixth form college is in trouble.  Awarded the dreaded 4 (that’s “inadequate” to you and me) by the inspectors in October, the college has received an interim report from their consulting inspector which criticises the college further on a number of issues.  It is not my intention to examine the ins and outs of why the college received the 4 in the first place.  Nor is it my intention in this post to comment on the quite understandable furore that is currently being played out in the local media and online petitions etc.  While I have never taught at the college, I did attend there in the mid-80s and know some of the teachers who are either currently working at the college or who have just left as a direct result of the initial Ofsted report in October.  For them and for many of the students, the last few months have been at best unsettling, at worst traumatic.

I have sympathy with all involved.  My own school’s Ofsted inspection eighteen months ago was profoundly unpleasant and I and my colleagues are well aware that an inspection, in which we will be required to show the improvements noted by our HMI in his two interim reports, is imminent.  The details of the sixth form college’s interim report are, however, instructive and worth highlighting.

The first point to note is that the interim inspection took place on the 15th November last year, only a handful of weeks after the first Ofsted report was published.  It seems unrealistic, then, to expect a radical, comprehensive improvement in the key areas identified by the report after so short a time.  A sense of realism, however, has never been something with which the Wilshaw-led Ofsted has been over-endowed.  The report criticises the college’s action plan for being “too long” and featuring “unnecessary detail”.  Without having access to the document, it’s impossible for me to comment on the validity of that judgement, but the comment about “a minority of teachers continuing to resist making changes to improve” struck me as particularly interesting, the word “noncompliance” in relation to teaching practice even more so.

At face value, that comment paints an image of a majority of teachers striving to improve the quality of learning for students (they’re actually called “learners” in Ofsted-speak, but the phrase “learning for learners” just sounds silly), while a stubborn rump of poorly performing teachers rejects the path of true salvation and clings to their outdated practices, letting the whole side down in the process.  It would be a persuasive picture were it not for a couple of pertinent points.

Firstly, Ofsted is, and I apologise for my bluntness, bollocks.

Its inspection practices are not evidentially-based and, while much of what it recommends has some proven validity in terms of classroom practice, because of the ridiculous pressure (competitive between sectors and between institutions within the public sector, as well as financial – particularly in the FE sector) on educational leaders, what should be presented as part of a range of pedagogical practices is instead presented as orthodoxy and dogma.  It should be obvious that, if students are being judged on their performance in written exams, placing a high value on group work is not all that clever a thing to do.  While investigative and collaborative work absolutely have their place, the skills students need to pass AS and A-level exams are more traditional: essay-writing, analysis of texts, remembering complex mathematical formulae, retaining information about the human body etc.  Making a technique that is useful in a particular context (starting a unit of work, for example, or modelling how to analyse a sonnet) the prescribed method of teaching for all lessons is nonsensical.  Even the much-maligned (by, I’ll readily admit, me as well as many others) former Secretary State for Education, Michael Gove, had his doubts about Ofsted’s fetishisation of group work, pointing out that “[t]eachers have felt they need to organise group work in which students talk to each other rather than learn from their teacher or texts. This approach is not just constricting the initiative and talent of great teachers by diminishing the power of teaching. It also runs counter to the very best recent research on how children learn.”  Perhaps the ‘minority of teachers’ at my local college are closet Gove-ites.  Or perhaps, they simply recognise that the methods they’ve been using throughout their careers still work, that they are the methods students actually want to see in classrooms, that the drive to get students to teach each other, to ‘find things out’ with the teacher acting as ‘facilitator’ runs the risk of wasting their time and energy as well as their students’.

The second point to make about that report quotation is that it runs counter to what students apparently want to see.  Comments in an online petition organized by students decry the privileging of Ofsted-approved activities in lessons and express the desire to be taught in a more traditional, didactic way.  Their reactions fly in the face of accepted Ofsted dogma.  They do not feel ‘empowered’ by talking to each other; they feel ‘empowered’ by the systematic acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills.  They feel, in short, ‘empowered’ by having in their classroom an experienced, enthusiastic professional whom they trust and from whom they are prepared to learn.  Everything else is at best superfluous, at worst a time-consuming distraction.

The third point to make is a more general one and it is a difficult one to write.  The link between ‘good’ teaching and the achievement of students cannot be accurately determined.  This, actually, is the fundamental flaw at the heart of the current inspection system.  Ofsted operates on the assumption that, if achievement is ‘good’, then teaching will similarly be good.  Similarly, if achievement ‘requires improvement’, then it must surely follow teaching does too.  One educational think tank has proposed doing away with a grade for teaching altogether in school inspection reports, as the grade for achievement and the grade for teaching vary in only 5% of cases.  In the context of an inspection system which places ever-increasing emphasis on ‘value added’ ‘expected levels of progress’, communities may well be surprised to find that the well-regarded local secondary school with a good reputation for getting its pupils good GCSE and/or A level results is not so ‘good’ after all.  David Laws, the current schools minister, has talked scathingly of ‘coasting schools’ and it is undoubtedly true that some suburban schools do need to raise their game. However, in the context of an examination system that is in upheaval (Ofqual has indicated that it won’t settle down from a statistical point of view for about 10 years), the single-minded focus on judging teaching in the light of exam results begins to look highly suspect.  How can schools be judged on exam results when, because of the reforms to GCSEs and A-levels, they have been told to expect significant fluctuations in their pupils’ performance year to year?  To be honest, though, the rigid link between exam performance and quality of teaching that has formed the theoretical underpinning of all Ofsted’s practice for the last few years was suspect anyway.  At the heart of this issue, is the question: whose responsibility is it for students to achieve?  When I took my ‘O’ levels (and failed a third of them!), it was clearly my responsibility.  Now, it increasingly looks like it’s the responsibility of the teachers.   This, surely, is not a system that produces independent and responsible students – or, for that matter, independent and responsible citizens.

An example of this can be found in my local college’s interim report which criticises the college because the inspector saw “[t]oo many learners arriv[ing] at lessons with disorganised files” before later going on to comment that “many do not remove their coats during lessons”.  While students probably shouldn’t be wearing coats during lessons, I’m not convinced that it’s the college’s responsibility to ensure that students have organized their files properly.

All of this would be funny, if individual lives and careers weren’t being destroyed.  The interim report contains a sinister line about senior managers not having taken enough steps “to remove poor practice”.  If the experience of the last term and the comments on the online petition site are any indication, it may well be the practice of teachers that students feel they learn from the most that is ‘removed’, leaving a faddish, froth-filled wasteland of group work and peer mentoring in its place.

Welcome to education in the 21st century.

Afterlife With Archie Issue 1

Comics have been a fertile ground for experimentation over the years, but Archie Comics’ bold foray into the horror genre is surely a step too far for the classic wholesome publisher?  Erm, no actually.  Below I examine what might be the best comic of the last twelve months…

It starts, as many good horror stories do, with a reckless act of desperate love.  And an act of compassionate rebellion.  And a dark terrible secret.  When Reggie Mantle accidentally runs over Jughead Jones’ dog, Hot Dog, he inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the sort of moment more commonly seen in a George Romero film, as a newly undead Jughead arrives at the Riverdale High hallowe’en dance, his entrance greeted by admiring comments from his unsuspecting classmates.  How we get to that moment is a deftly handled masterclass in comic book storytelling from writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla.

Francavilla's artwork is worth the cover price on its own.

Francavilla’s artwork is worth the cover price on its own.

Aguirre-Sacasa weaves a story whose key moments spring from the characters and their motivations.  Of course, Jughead would do anything to save his dog.  Of course, Sabrina would do anything to help her friend – even if that help means opening up the infamous ‘Necronomicon’.  (I’m not sure which edition this one is, but it certainly packs a punch…)  The pace is assured and unhurried, which means that there’s plenty of time for that sense of inevitability so important to good horror fiction to build up.  And, boy, does it build up!  Aguirre-Sacasa makes Jughead (and us) wait for the appearance of the re-animated Hot Dog and, halfway through the issue, he teases us with a confrontation between an infected Jughead and Archie which doesn’t, thankfully, end the way it might.

This dog's not so hot now...

This dog’s not so hot now…

While the formal conventions of horror writing are duly (and skilfully) observed, Aguirre-Sacasa imbues his tale with a considerable amount of heart.  During the aforementioned encounter between Jughead and Archie, you genuinely feel Archie’s concern for his friend and the later banter between Betty and Veronica is witty, waspish and perfectly naturalistic.  Throughout the issue, Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing is faultless: his dialogue, along with Francavilla’s artwork (more of which in a moment), breathes life into the characters, fizzing and crackling with arch humour at one moment, replete with warmth and pathos the next; his pacing is deliberate but never slow; and, his understanding of both the characters and the horror genre in which he’s placed them is spot on.  Even given those strengths, though, the comic would not be quite so impressive without the considerable talents of Francesco Francavilla.

Francavilla’s artwork is, quite simply, gorgeous.  His lines are simple and clear; his muted colour palette possesses a haunting luminosity.  He’s capable of portraying incredible tenderness between characters in one panel and ominous silhouetted horror the next.  He’s perfectly suited to the horror genre, but, as I suggested earlier, he’s adept at the quieter character moments and his facial expressions are both varied and natural.  Even with an averagely written book, his art would pull you into the story.  Here, in expressing Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing, it’s utterly compelling.

That... can't be good.

That… can’t be good.

On paper, Aferlife With Archie probably shouldn’t work.  The mix of clean-cut, all-American Archie Andrews with brooding, visceral horror should be too jarring to be entertaining.  To be brutally honest, Archie comics have never particularly interested me, but, after hearing the guys on the Comic Vine podcast rave about this title a few months ago, I decided to give this a look.  I’m very glad I did.  This is not a gimmick.  Nor is it a knowing exercise in post-modern comics irony.  This is comic book storytelling at its finest and this is now a title I’ll be picking up regularly.  (And catching up on.)  I highly recommend that you give it a look.

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