Review of The Avengers

I went to see The Avengers on Saturday. Being a massive fan of the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies, and a long-term reader of The Mighty Thor comics (though I’ve switched allegiance now that Loki has his own series) I had EPIC FEELS about this one. I’d been looking forward to it at fever pitch for months.

Marvel Avengers Assemble - Loki

Which makes me rather sad to report that I don’t know what I think, now that I’ve seen it. I’m having a moment of cognitive dissonance here, because I enjoyed it thoroughly for about 90% of the way, and then in the last 10% I found myself getting more and more disenchanted until by the very end I came out feeling profoundly disappointed. I simultaneously thought it was awesome, and hated it.

I’ve spent all day today trying to figure out why.

Recap of the plot and spoilers everywhere below:


Shield have the Tesseract. Loki arrives via wormhole, mind controls Selvig and Hawkeye, steals the Tesseract and leaves, dropping a mountain on the secret Shield base in the process. Oh Noes! He’s going to use the tesseract to take over the world by opening a portal through which he can bring his spiky alien army! Fury must do something about this, so he phones Black Widow – who gets her own twisty psychological and majorly kickass establishing scene – and tells her to find Bruce Banner. She does so, bringing him to Shield’s new secret headquarters aboard the helicarrier. (Which is awesome.) Meanwhile, Fury has brought Captain America in, and I can’t quite remember what happens with Iron Man, but he’s there too.

Banner was new to me – I’d only ever watched the Hulk TV series and hadn’t bothered to see the films. Largely because I know what it’s like living with a rage monster inside you, and I can attest that it doesn’t make you any kind of superhero. However, although the Hulk strikes me as inevitably one-note as a character, Banner is a different matter. I liked him a lot.

This may have something to do with why the ending sucked. Banner is an interesting and likable character. By the end, he had been transformed to Hulk, and – even without my other Hulk related issues (of which more anon) – this resulted in less interest and liking to go around.

With all the superheroes, except Thor, aboard the helicarrier, there is much bickering and wise-cracking, which is all prime entertainment, because the one-liners are priceless, and who doesn’t enjoy a bunch of self-important, pompous heroes utterly failing to get along? Meanwhile Loki is up to something high profile and nefarious in Germany, where he gets to demonstrate his villainy by smiling a lot, extracting someone’s eyeball (I’m not sure whether this is literally or virtually) and giving the famous “you were made to be ruled” speech.

Cap and Iron Man are sent to take him down, which occurs with very little fuss. Someone mentions how easy it was, but nobody draws any kind of obvious inference from this, and Loki is bundled aboard a plane headed for the helicarrier.

At this point, Thor turns up, whisks Loki off for some brotherly talk that seems remarkably lacking in happiness, puzzlement, angst or drama considering (a) all the manly tears during their last confrontation in Thor and (b) the last Thor saw of Loki was when he apparently committed suicide by Bifrost. I was frankly expecting a bit more emotion from this reunion, but it turned out to be as casual and brotherly as my kids fighting over who gets the remote control. Which was… nice, in its way. Very “we’ve lived with each other for millenia, and can’t surprise each other any more.” But it also felt a bit like a lost opportunity to bring some genuine emotion to Thor, who was – as always – a large, blond, muscle-bound nothing of a character.

As is demonstrated amply when Iron Man turns up to try and get his captive back, and he and Thor have an epic smack-down that involves Stark getting every single one of the good lines, Cap eventually having to separate them like naughty schoolboys, and Loki sitting unsupervised on a rock watching the shenanigans.

But again, nobody asks themselves why he didn’t try to get away at that point, and they take him off to Shield’s secret base & imprison him in the Hulk-proof room. Here he puts into motion operation “piss-off ALL the Avengers” via a spectacular piece of nastiness toward Black Widow. She realizes what he’s up to, but again, nobody seems to do anything about it. Cue attack by minions, Banner Hulking out and destroying the helicarrier, and Loki escaping.

Up until this point, despite a not-major-but-fandom-beloved character being killed, and despite the nastiness (you can’t really be a Loki fan without expecting him to be, on occasion, breathtakingly petty and cruel) I was really enjoying myself. But it was at this point where things started to go sour for me, I guess.

First of all, Fury uses beloved-character’s death for a shameless scene of emotional manipulation. (And Fury… I liked him in Iron Man 2, but here I found his grandstanding kind of obnoxious. The whole “don’t take us humans on because there’s something about us that sets us apart and makes us more special than any of you aliens” message doesn’t get less racist just because we haven’t yet found another species to use it against.)

I disapproved. Also, this was the point where we went into finale mode. All the superheroes started working together (thus eliminating much of the entertainment value of watching them bicker.) The Chitauri arrived on awesome armoured space-whale/eel/turtles. Instead of actually using their interesting shape-changing abilities for anything at all, they decided to go for the full on frontal assault against Manhattan.

This meant that all the nice little character moments which had broken up and enlivened the fighting more or less stopped (except for Loki throwing Tony Stark out of a window.) Hulk was deployed and smashed everything with the result that I got the impression that we didn’t actually need the other heroes at all.

This, I don’t get. Banner is afraid of Hulk because he’s uncontrollable, he wrecks his own side as much as the enemy (as demonstrated by the helicarrier thing.) And yet at the climax of the fight, suddenly he’s indispensable? Suddenly he can tell friend from foe? Suddenly he can even raise the dead?

This has a flavour of the cop-out to me. If he’s that useful, why is everyone afraid of him? If they’re right to be afraid, how come he’s that useful? He’s like Mjolnir in the Thor comics – it’s an over-powered deus ex machina. If you have a problem, hit it with the Hulk. If it doesn’t go away, hit it again. (And I’m not saying this because of the final Loki v Hulk grudge match – I laughed too.)

But on the reverse of the dissatisfaction that someone has cheated with the plot as far as Hulk goes, I also have the feeling that someone has cheated with the plot as far as Loki goes as well.

I mean, as a villain, his deal is that he’s clever, manipulative, the master of mind games and the double cross. This has also been amply demonstrated by the helicarrier thing. So why suddenly have him stand and fight? Why is he going into the final battle without any kind of plan at all, let alone a fiendishly cunning one that no one can fathom until it’s too late? Why is he not switching sides, or claiming the Chitauri captured and forced him into this, or baffling Hulk with clones and running away? Suddenly he’s too stupid.

It seemed to me that two of the major characters had to go OOC to create the ending as it stands, and that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed that a superhero film ends with an epic battle of the ‘punch it hard enough and it’ll go away’ variety. But I did feel let down – I’d expected something cleverer, both from the villain and from the heroes. Something a lot cleverer than “lets fire the missile into the heart of the sun alien spaceship,” which has been done a million times before. I’d expected a final twist. I’d expected to be surprised by something that raised the game and made this film better than all its predecessors. It wasn’t there, and no amount of awesome space eels could make up for it.


The first three quarters of the film is a epic parade of brilliant character moments for all the characters, and I loved it. The final all-stops-pulled-out battle is an epic parade of CGI with very little plot, the aliens were under-used as nothing but cannon fodder, and I felt it was cliched, too long, kind of boring, and didn’t really provide any emotional pay off.

I like to think this isn’t just because I was rooting for the villain all along – that if they had laid the smackdown on Loki in some more inventive manner, while he was doing anything other than just standing there – I might not have minded so much. I may, of course, be mistaken in that, but I loved “Thor” and I thought he’d died at the end of that, so I don’t think I am, not really.

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X-Men First Class, review.

What a great year it’s been so far for films I wanted to see!  I can’t remember another year like it.  But perhaps I’m getting jaded as a result, because I went into X-Men: First Class with high hopes and found it very … meh.

Part of this may be that I’m still obsessing over my newly kindled Thor fannishness.  It’s funny, I could see that First Class was a better film than Thor – it had character arcs and important issues and slicker special effects and better fight scenes.  But, deary me, it was so very worthy with its earnest examination of social and self-acceptance issues that it seemed to forget to have any fun.

In that, I’m sure it’s quite realistic for a super-hero film, and maybe the realism is why I didn’t like it very much.

It was nice to see some new mutants, and Banshee’s appearance caused me to lose a 5p bet I’d had with my daughter a couple of years ago.  (I maintained that you will never see any red-headed heroes, red hair usually being reserved for villains.)  Banshee wasn’t exactly the hero of the film, and his hair was more auburn than ginger, but it was close enough.  It still doesn’t count as a great step forward for inclusivity, though, when set beside the fact that the one black character was there to be canon-fodder, and all the female mutants were on the ‘wrong’ side.  (You can see why they would be, mind you.  That’s the side I’d have chosen too in the circumstances.)

The scene with Magneto pulling the submarine out of the water would have been awesome if it had come before the scenes of Magneto doing even more awesome things in the last two pictures.  I did enjoy the final showdown, and thought it was cool that Xavier got to share in that death (nice to see his telepathy has its downsides too.)  I also thought “you killed my mother!” made a nice change – so many heroes are fixated on their fathers to the point where you wonder if they had a second parent at all.

But setting it in the 60s and being faithful to a certain amount of the skeevy sexism of the period meant that quite a lot of it left a bad taste in my mouth.  I remember what that was like, and it was no fun the first time.

Magneto pretty much stole the show, and Xavier came across as such a self-centred dimbo that I wasn’t really able to feel the central ethical tug of the story at all.  Someone more eloquent and likeable should have been on the “humans are not necessarily our enemies” side, particularly if all the evidence of the film was going to be weighed against them.  Perhaps the film makers thought that was obvious, but it wasn’t obvious enough for me, given that every character on the other side had perfectly good reasons to be there.  Someone who was slightly less oblivious of society’s dark side than Charles would have been a better choice for the mouthpiece of the ‘right’ side.  As it was, he failed to convince me to cheer for him – which meant I didn’t enjoy his victory as much as I should have.

So yeah, this is not much of a review because I can’t find much enthusiasm for the film.  I don’t really want realistic politics from my gosh-wow, “isn’t it fun to blow things up in awesome ways” escapist super-hero films.  At least, not this much of it.

I guess I also feel that there are things too terrible to be used – or at least used like this – as melodramatic backstory to the wish-fulfilment fantasy of being gifted with cool powers that set you outside the normal run of humanity, and the holocaust is one of them.  I don’t know why I feel like that with this film, and didn’t with Magneto’s backstory in the previous ones, but perhaps it’s because those terrible things are that much closer in this one and cast a denser shadow as a result.  Or perhaps it’s because the social outcast/super-hero metaphor breaks down for me when it’s looked at as closely as this – none of these super-powers leave you exactly powerless in the face of human evil, after all.

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Rekindled Comic Book Love.

What to do when stuck at home with two ill children – try and catch up on all the comic reading you missed for the last 20 years.  Also brush up on your mythology.

I have been consistently hating on (comic and movie) Loki’s horned helmet for decades, but now, thanks to the evidence of the Loki Stone from Kirby Steven church in Cumbria UK, it’s become clear to me that the ram’s horns are as authentic as you can get.  The Snaptun stone in Denmark, where you can tell it’s him by the scarred lips, also has cute little horns.  So, since horns appear to be obligatory, I shall resign myself to them on the grounds of “love me, love my silly hat.”  Continue reading

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Bursting onto the scene

I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog for the past few months because, well, I’ve had some exciting news that I wasn’t allowed to share with the world. However the contracts have been signed, the press releases…released, and my secret is out. The manuscript I’ve been working on since 2006 has been bought by UK independent publishers Angry Robot Books in a three-book deal, and the first book, titled The Alchemist of Souls, has been scheduled for publication in March 2012.

I’m hugely excited to be working with Angry Robot – this is a time of enormous change in the world of publishing, so finding a publisher that understands issues like DRM (i.e. making DRM-free versions of their ebooks available) and ebook pricing (not charging hardback prices!) was essential for me.

I’ll be blogging regularly about my progress towards publication over on my personal blog at, and of course I’ll be posting the highlights here as well!

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The Indie Thing: time for some reflection

So I just discovered (being really slow) that I can check my sales for NIGHT AND CHAOS and UNGRATEFUL DEAD on Amazon without having to try to make sense of Amazon rankings*. I’m not going to go into numbers and money because A) numbers and money confuse me and B) numbers and money are boring (Although I will say my current earnings for NIGHT AND CHAOS are equal to my last quarter royalties for AFTERLIFE, which tells you we’re not talking much here). But although I will say my sales are … not great … they are increasing. Let’s see. NIGHT AND CHAOS has been out in the wild since January 20th, so just over a month. Looking at my sales for that time, there’s a definite, slow, increase week-by-week. There’s been a few really great reviews, but there’s no way to tell if there’s any correlation between reviews and sales.

I’ve dropped mentions of NIGHT AND CHAOS where appropriate on the Amazon forums, but as I’ve already said, I don’t think this is particularly effective, since the only other people visiting such forums are other indie authors promoting their own work. I’ve given up on Kindleboards. The place scares me, frankly. I know I should make more of an effort, but I can’t be bothered learning the rules of engagement, what I can and can’t say, etc. I don’t really like forums, to be honest. They’re always in danger of exploding into vitriol and Godwin’s Law over nothing and they can be very cliquey.

Anyway, basically what I want to do now is spread the word further and see if I can boost my sales further at the same time. Because, you know, I want to do this full-time one day, so I’m not even going to pretend I don’t want to make money here. (At the same time I still feel weird about asking people to spend money on my books, because what right do I have to tell you what to buy? I need to overcome this. Help me, please!).

First step: new cover. I always knew my own artistic efforts fell way short of “good” and the current cover for NIGHT AND CHAOS was only ever supposed to be a temporary solution until I found a decent artist. And I have! We exchanged some emails on Monday and he claims to be working on the cover right now… Since he will probably be over at my house this weekend to watch UFC and play boardgames, I can actually, you know, nag him about that.

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but that strikes me as an impossible ask, especially online. Covers are the first thing you see, and if the cover doesn’t make you want to look further, you’re screwed. When my writers’ group used to meet in Borders (before they turned it into a TK Maxx and I cried), we made a game of finding the worst covers we could and mocking them. Guys, I don’t want people to mock my book because the cover is crappy. Therefore I do not want crappy covers.

The next step is to get Blood and Bones and Wild ready to go. The more books are out there with my name on, the better, I feel. Progress on both has been slow lately, but that’s been unavoidable thanks to Real Life Stuff. I’ve got a busy weekend coming up thanks to More Real Life Stuff, but the slushpile for Serve in Heaven, Reign in Hell is currently empty, so that will free up a lot of time for writing. Yay! I’m planning to start the next Urban Wolf book in May, so I’ve got three months in which my writing time is just mine, and I’m going to use that time to try to build as much momentum as possible.

*Amazon rankings, as far as I can tell, are nothing more than an arcane device intended to trigger mass confusion and wild mood swings.

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Crossovers Revisited

In my further attempts to narrow down the sort of things I’m likely to end up writing stories about, I have abandoned text and gone for a diagram.  This is the map of my personal genre crossovers:


So, we’ve got

Plain Historical, Plain Fantasy, Plain Romance and Plain Mystery. 

Shining in the Sun is a plain romance, and I have an idea for a plain mystery and a plain historical which may or may not come to pass.  But I’m not as happy writing in a single genre as I am writing in at least two at once. 

So False Colors, Captain’s Surrender and Blessed Isle are all AD – Historical Romance.

The Witch’s Boy is AB – Historical Fantasy.

Under the Hill is ABD – Fantasy with a strong element of History and Romance.

The Wages of Sin is ABCD – Mystery, Historical Romance and elements of Fantasy.

Future projects include

Whirlwind Boys (AD), an idea for a Historical Mystery (AC) and an idea for a Historical Fantasy Mystery (ABC)

The most consistent thing in the lot is the A – the historical element.  That’s interesting, as I didn’t realize I was quite that wedded to it.  My new tag line definitely seems to sum it all up, though🙂

It was interesting thinking this through.  It does give me a brand of sorts, but also plenty of room to manoeuvre.  Why haven’t I tried Steampunk yet, I wonder?  You’d have thought it was everything I liked in a single package. 

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Neither one thing nor the other.

Hm, writing blog posts is tricky.  It’s all very well to say blithely “I’ll write something about crossovers” but it’s an entirely different matter to get beyond a single sentence.  The single sentence in my case would be “I like them.”

I suppose I’d better start by defining my terms.  (An early training in philosophy can be a handy thing at times!)  What am I talking about when I say “I like crossovers”?  What is a “crossover”?

I’m using the word to mean “a piece of fiction that could be shelved in two or more genres.”  So the Midsomer Murders books are pure Mystery, Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is a pure Historical, but the Cadfael books are crossovers because they are mysteries with a historical setting.  They’re both historicals and mysteries.

Historical mystery has become so popular that it’s earned a category of its own, of course, but it’s not the only crossover genre out there.  What about the Temeraire series – historical/fantasy, or one of my own favourites “His Majesty’s Wizard” which was a historical/fantasy/murder mystery. 

I don’t know if I hold a record for the number of genres you can cram into one book, but I made a good stab at it with “The Wages of Sin,” which is a historical, paranormal, gothic horror, murder mystery, m/m romance.  Of all my stuff, that was the one that gave me most joy to write.

Crossovers have long been a bit of a red-headed step child in the publishing industry, though I for one don’t know why.  I suppose it must be hard to know where to shelve them, but on the other hand you must appeal to twice the readers, so I would have supposed they made lots of marketing sense.

They also make lots of sense to me, both as a reader and as a writer, from a structural point of view.  Certain genres are verbs in a world where other genres are nouns and adjectives.  So for example, one of the glories of Fantasy is the world-building.  Lots of imagination goes in to creating the setting.  But there isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a standard fantasy plot other than the ‘group of friends (possibly with a chosen one) quest for something in order to save the world.’  And frankly that one is so specific that it’s been done to death already.

So you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack with an amazing setting and a beautiful world, unsure what to do with them.  That’s where another genre comes in handy.  Romance and Mystery have the plot already built in – they are the verbs of the genre sentence.  Person A meets Person B, they fall in love, are separated by internal and external obstacles, overcome them and live happily until the next adventure.  That plot can happen anywhere – in a historical, in a fantasy, in a horror story, in a comedy.  You name it and you can find a romance in it.

The same goes for mystery – the action is built in – someone does something horrible, someone else has to figure out what it was and how it was done, and justice has to be done.  For both a reader and a writer it’s convenient and reassuring to know that the genre of the plot means that something is going to happen.  They’re not going to be left floating around amidst a great setting and characters waiting for the story to start.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who doesn’t like them, why not?  And from anyone who does, I can’t imagine I’ve hit on the only reason.  What do you think?

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