Wednesday 28 September 2011

Marshal Jake T. Devine will ride again.

I was pleased to get the news that my cuddly, great big softy of a lawman Marshal Jake T. Devine will return next year in a new adventure.

Devine last appeared in 2004 in Devine's Law and I've been keen to write about him ever since, but I had a lot of trouble finding another story for him. He's an anti-hero character (I was joking about him being a softy. He's a brutal sadist who's nastier than the outlaws he shoots up.), and he's an uncomprising destroyer of plots. Whenever I pointed him at an interesting situation in chapter one, he would merrily slaughter the entire cast in about two pages and leave me with the problem of what to write about in chapter two.

Anyhow the new book will be my 26th Black Horse Western, and it's entitled Devine. I'm pleased to say that time hasn't mellowed the uncompromising lawman and his catchphrase is still: 'Nobody threatens me and lives.'

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Hope and Glory

I recently watched the school-based BBC drama Hope and Glory again for the first time since it was shown in the 1990s. I was pleasantly impressed and it was well worth the fiver it cost on amazon. Obviously a show about teachers doesn't sound like a promising idea for interesting drama, and it seems even less promising when you realize it features the standard school-based story. A bunch of work-shy, no-hope, delinquent dropouts (and the pupils aren't much use either) in the worst school in the country are helped to find their full potential by a brilliant, charismatic new headmaster. Luckily it's more enjoyable than that sounds, mixing drama with gentle comedy while just about avoiding becoming a soap opera.

The charismatic teacher in question is Ian George, played memorably by Lenny Henry. I was again amazed that this show didn't lead to him taking on more straight acting roles. Lenny was a popular comedian in the 1980s, but his old-fashioned style of comedy became outdated quickly. As a funny man I doubt anyone has laughed at his material in decades, but as a straight actor he's a revelation. His character is compelling and unusual, but always convincing. Ian is a high-flyer in the education world, who turns down a government post to become a headmaster and nothing will stop him turning his school around. He's arrogant, bossy, self-absorbed, brilliant in bursts but also prone to terrible mistakes, and he's awful with relationships, treating his several girlfriends through the show badly just because being nice might interfere with schoolwork.

Most of his teachers provide the same sort of complexity with characters that are flawed but likeable. His deputy Phil Jakes was my favourite. Played by the dependable Chris Russell, Phil is paranoid, melancholic and frequently out of his depth, but he's also had his dedication beaten out of him by decades of disappointment. At times he's the hero of the story and at other times he's the villain, making his character arc interesting to follow. The same is true of the full-blooded villain Jan Woolley, a teacher who fails to get swept along by the new headmaster's reforms. She's always the last to arrive, the first to leave and she has no interest in bonding with the little darlings. I found myself rooting for her.

The other main teacher is Debbie Bryan, who probably is an interesting character. Unfortunately she's played by Amanda Redman and she uses exactly the same voice, mannerisms and responses as she does in New Tricks, so I was frequently left confused wondering why Sandra Pullman was now pretending to be a teacher. There are also surprisingly good performances from a variety of stage school brats pretending to be tough inner city yobs, while the rest of the cast are made up with stereotypes such as the macho PE teacher and the insecure trainee. These two embark on the most underwhelming romance I reckon I've ever seen, but these minor problems don't detract from the well-played drama, for series 1 anyhow, in which the classy feel is helped by the musical score, which extensively uses familiar classical pieces.

For the first series alone the show is worth watching, although sadly it's downhill after that. The classical music ends and one by one the original cast leave, usually after falling out with Ian George, and every time they get replaced with less interesting characters. Woolley gets replaced by the annoyingly perfect Kitty Burton. Debbie gets replaced by the usually dependable actress Phyllis Logan, except her role doesn't have much to do, and Phil Jakes gets replaced by a posh and annoying new deputy. Worst though, the stories settle for providing the expected formula for a school-based drama, which the first series avoided through clever writing. So every week a new problem pupil is on the verge of being ejected, but luckily they have an as yet undiscovered talent for English, music, sport, art etc and so the dedicated teachers help them achieve their goals and avoid getting expelled. On the plus side, every week you can play spot the problem and spot the special talent.

One other thing that amused me was that the first series featured an entertaining blokey friendship between Ian George and his best mate outside school. Series one ended with the not unexpected amendment to the format of Ian employing his mate as his new deputy, except when series two starts his best mate is nowhere to be seen and he never gets mentioned again. I presume the actor left at the last minute as, with no build up, Ian's best mate suddenly becomes the school janitor, who he never spoke to in series one, and curiously all of the janitor's dialogue provides observations that his previous best mate would say.

Towards the end the show improves and breaks free of the shackles of the weekly formula story until it ends surprisingly with a dramatic final episode that restores faith in the show and makes it feel that it was a journey worth taking. If you're minded to see the show and don’t want to know how it ends, don’t read on.

The dramatic ending chosen for the show is an unusual one, although it was flagged up in the first few minutes of episode one. Either way it is effective. Having devoted the whole show to demonstrating that Ian George will do anything to help his school, he pays the ultimate price when he ignores his health warnings to avoid all stress. The actual circumstances leading up to his death are a bit weak and start when a new teacher on the edge punishes his pupils by keeping them in for five minutes after the bell. Back in my day this used to happen at least once a week, but apparently these days this is too traumatic for the little darlings and it sets off a chain reaction of events. The last few minutes are emotional and tragic with hardly a line of dialogue uttered, thereby providing an odd ending that gives not a shred of hope for the future, which is odd for a show that was all about hope and less about glory.

I was pleased to see that youtube has a classic moment from episode 1 in which Peter Davison as the outgoing headmaster loses control in his final school assembly. Hands up if you reckon we wouldn't have so many riots if we had fewer touchy-feely Ian George type headmasters and more straight-talking Peter Davison type headmasters!

Thursday 8 September 2011

A Dance with Dragons: a slow dance presumably.

This review will be about the 5,439th posted on the Net in the last two months of the most eagerly-awaited fantasy novel in recent memory, A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Book 5 of A Song of Ice and Fire). I hate writing negative reviews and this one won’t say anything different to what 99% of reviewers are saying but, as I've been waiting ten years for this book, I feel an urge to add my ten cents' worth. I'll include mild spoilers although, if you've read the book, you'll know it's easy not to give much away in a review.

In short this novel isn't quite the worst I've ever read, but it is the most disappointing. Fifteen years ago, when I started Ice and Fire, disappointment was furthest from my mind. Martin appeared to be a rare author who would avoid the pitfall that often ruins fantasy of the endless series syndrome, in which trilogies become 4 volumes, become 5, 10, 20 volume epics. More quests are attempted, more parts of the map are visited, more characters are added, more sub-plots are woven in, more description is used until the story grinds to a halt.

A Game of Thrones stomped all over that attitude. Here was the first book in a projected 4-volume epic whose story was big enough to fill four volumes. It was epic fantasy without the dull bits, a high-adrenaline romp through a version of medieval history. It featured charismatic bad guys, flawed good guys and a story in which it was anyone's guess where it'd go and who would survive to the end. This was fantasy for adults, not just because of its adult content, but because it had a character based plot. Before Martin, most epic fantasy used the Tolkien model of the plot-based story in which everyone chases around a map for no good reason other than that the story says they should. But Thrones let the characters drive the story. People weren't just good or bad, they were shades of grey, like real people. Greed, lust, envy and worst of all love could motivate people to destroy a kingdom. It was compelling stuff and it's no surprise that this year's tv version was popular. I never watch filmed versions of novels I like, but I can imagine how good it was. I can also imagine that this book will annoy old and new fans so much that the tv version will ignore it and restart the story at book 6.

The warning signals first appeared in books two and three when the number of characters grew, but they didn't raise concern as the narrative was so much fun. Every time you started to see where the story was going, main characters got slaughtered and the story veered off in another direction. By the end of book three we'd reached only the end of act one of the three act main narrative as the Ice and Fire elements were only then becoming relevant. So even the inevitable news that the series was to be a five, six and then seven volume series was well-received.

Book four started the story's second act and, as often happens in middle sections, the plot stalled. Sticking your hero up a tree in act one is often easy and getting him out of the tree in act three is also often easy. But the middle bit is where you throw rocks at him, and making that interesting can be tricky. The solution chosen in this case was to slow the narrative down to the speed you'd expect from an asthmatic ant carrying a large bucket of swill up a steep hill. To add further strangeness, the story ignored the main characters and detailed the lives of the bit-part characters. And then it added in new characters who lived in ignored parts of the kingdom. Then it sent them off on long and uneventful journeys to irrelevant parts of the map to do uninteresting things.

As an exercise in risk taking and not giving readers what they expect book four should be applauded, but few readers welcomed the change of pace. It was like waiting ten years for a new Star Trek tv series and then instead of it being set on the bridge of the Enterprise, it's set in Starfleet's admin department. And it relates the adventures of a group of filing clerks in their mission to discover filing systems that are not as we know them, seek out new income and expenditure spreadsheets, and boldly track down missing paper clips that nobody has ever missed before. And then when you try it, you find it's even duller than you expected. That was book four. Book five is worse.

First, here's the spoiler that all the reviews say: I can't spoil the story in A Dance with Dragons because there isn't one. This book has no reason to exist beyond the fact that it'll sell. Like with the previous books, it's character based, but unlike with the first three in which the characters drove the plot, this book is just about characters. And they do nothing other than observe passively while thinking about how great it'd be if someone were to film what they can see and make miniature collectibles out of everyone they meet and computer games out of the scenery they pass. Which would be bad enough, except the characters act differently than the way they've acted before. Jon is Up North worrying about the ice zombies beyond the wall, but he does nothing about it. Dany is Down South ignoring her dragons while she tries to get into a slimy new character's pants. And Tyrion is going from Up North to Down South while worrying about what he did in book three, a lot.

Worse, the bold moments that filled the narrative before have been replaced with nervous cop-outs that feel as if the writer was giving himself an easy ride. I won’t spell them out, but whenever something decisive is close to happening, it fizzles away. Characters get killed, but then we find out they're still alive. Characters get clapped in irons, but their captors release them. Characters act brutally, but they were only acting. Characters face a problem, but they ignore it. If the early books had been written in this style, then with a single bound Eddard would have avoided the chopping block, the Red Wedding would have ended with a jolly sing-song, and Tyrion would have invented the Heimlich manoeuvre at Joffrey's wedding. Most annoyingly for me, it's likely that all the insoluble problems will be resolved with magic. Previously I had loved reading about a fantasy world without boy wizards and swords of power and ancient races of elven lords. But all those unreal solutions are slipping into the story to stop anyone having to make tough decisions. Admittedly there's a few compelling sections such as the return of the bit-part, in all ways, Theon, who went missing presumed chopped to bits 3,000 pages ago. But a handful of mildly interesting events isn't good enough in a book that's pushing half a million words, or as I kept thinking while forcing myself to read on, fifteen Black Horse Westerns.

I should say something positive as I wanted to enjoy this book and I tried to accept the story on its own terms. The best I can manage is that Martin can still write a well-constructed chapter. They all start with an arresting image, then they fill you in on the back story, develop with introspection and dialogue, and end on a cliff-hanger. But sadly, they have no tension. Suspense was one of the many things that made A Game of Thrones unmissable. A typical Tyrion chapter would start with the dwarf about to have his head chopped off. He'd talk his way out of that only to be thrown in a dungeon without food or water where he'd be offered a way out, but only if he completes an impossible task in which he's sure to be killed. And so it'd go on with everyone always in danger and with the suspense unbearable because anyone can get the chop.

In A Dance with Dragons a typical chapter starts with Jon worrying that the stores are running low on toilet paper. He meets the storeman who gives him an inventory of every item in the store, and the chapter ends with the cliff-hanging revelation that they might get short of sausages in three years. I accept that the novel is providing introspective angst and descriptive world-building instead of mounting up problems for the main characters with swordfights aplenty. But the ennui and the lack of anything that I reckon most readers find entertaining highlights the annoying writing style that didn’t matter before when the story was compelling in which 20 words (and often 200) are used when 10 would do, and when 10 would be more effective. For example, I longed for someone to just once have a sumptuous feast or a frugal meal rather than having to read about every item in every course of every meal. If the characters ate off-screen instead of breaking their fast every chapter, this book would be about 50 pages shorter.

I could say more to make the pain in my arms seem worthwhile after supporting this monster for so long while hoping it'd lead somewhere, but I'll give up. I still hope that the author or an editor or a tv producer accepts that this once great story has gone astray and drags it back on course. There's still time. I'd recommend that everyone involved prepares for book six by reading a western to see what a story is, and to see how books can tell that story in a twentieth of the length this one used. I know I intend to.