Everybody's Reading

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review by Rachel Evans of "Uprooted" by Naomi Novik

(Some spoilers!)
Much like the terrifying and sentient Wood at the centre of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, this novel reaches out with subtle violence, wraps its tendrils around your expectations and pulls them out from under your feet, leaving you (and your beliefs about what fantasy should be) altered for good. Fortunately for you, gentle reader, Novik is happy to take you by the hand and show you the safest route, saving you from any twisted ankles – or absolute insanity.
The tense stalemate between the two warring nations of Polnya and Rosya is but an abstract threat for Agnieszka, resident of the village of Dvernik, located on the border of The Wood. The most pressing issue for Nieszka, who happens to be Dragon Born, is the almost inevitable loss of Kasia, her best friend and fellow Dragon Born; for the Dragon chooses one girl from the surrounding area, and keeps her for ten years. In return for this, he protects the towns and villages from the constant, malevolent onslaught of The Wood.
Of course, this is not what happens. In a slightly predictable (and yet effective) twist, the Dragon ends up abruptly whisking her off to his lair – uh – tower. Apologies Ann Rice fans, but this Dragon is, in actual fact, a Wizard. He abandons Nieszka at the top of his tower without so much as a word of acknowledgement, leaving her to the realisation that she is going to spend the next ten years of her life locked up with him, not Kasia.  Unfortunately (fortunately) for the Dragon, Nieszka is not one to sit quietly and take instruction. Despite, or more accurately, because of his generally terrible behaviour, it is highly satisfying to witness Nieszka’s determination to make his life as difficult as possible. Nieszka’s vibrancy and agency in a world that is constrained not only by gender, but also class (making her pretty low on the food-chain) proves that there is scope for more female-driven fantasy that does not rely on the (boring) idea that 'women can do what men can, but in heels.'
The first third of the book focuses on world building, and brings to life the living, breathing threat of The Wood. It is refreshing to have a completely different antagonist to the usual run-of-the-mill demon/necromancer/manic ruler. The Wood is a genuinely terrifying creation, filled with all manner of creatures and malice that are hell-bent on destroying humanity. Beyond The Wood are Polnya and Rosya (Poland and Russia respectively), who have been at war with each other since the Polnyan queen disappeared with the Rosyan prince (into… you guessed it, The Wood!) These combine to create a backdrop of conflict and tension that feeds into every aspect of the story.
The rest of the book moves rapidly through a complex and sometimes confusing narrative. One could argue that the story doesn’t quite work in its current form, and could benefit with either being trimmed down or expanded into a multi-book series – there is certainly a wealth of material to draw from, both within the fictional world, and the mythological corpus on which it is based. In fact, the only true criticism that I have of Uprooted is its need to be everything at once; both high fantasy, multi-series epic and punchy one-off; YA but also oh-so-adult (some of the overarching themes and scenes in The Wood are highly disturbing); action-fantasy-thriller and romance. In fact, it is the romance aspect of the story that lets it down the most, something that I found incredibly disappointing. For all of Novik’s innovation with The Wood and Nieszka’s system of magic, there is a woeful lack of imagination and diversity when it comes to l-o-v-e. Initially, I thought that there was going to be a queer relationship between Nieszka and Kasia, and I was overjoyed. Those high hopes were crushed, however, when Novik practically forces the Dragon and Nieszka into a tryst that neither of them seems to want. The resulting relationship is both awkward and lack-lustre.
Despite the issues with pacing and with character interrelationships (both of which may have been better addressed in a multi-book format?), Uprooted is still a vastly enjoyable read. Novik’s prose is both evocative and hypnotic, and the way in which she builds the world of Polnya, Rosya, and The Wood is so immersive that it is possible to forget that you are reading a novel. Finally, Nieszka is a character that would cause me much distress if we were friends in real life; which is exactly what makes her such an excellent protagonist to guide you through the deepest, darkest parts of The Wood in order to reach the other side, both changed, and yet exactly the same.
 
About the reviewer
I am a first-year PhD student exploring the connections between gender and textiles in Old Norse literature at the University of Leicester. In my spare time I like to read (mostly dystopian, speculative or fantasy novels) and knit.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Review of "Alien Covenant" by Jeremy Sumner




(MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

It’s been a long five year wait for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated sequel to Prometheus, but now we have been finally presented with Alien: Covenant. The film follows the crew of the Covenant spaceship that is transporting thousands of colonists and embryos through space towards a newly identified hospitable planet. During the course of their journey, they pick up a stray transmission that leads them to discover a previously unknown planet. This one possesses uncannily similar traits to Earth itself and, compelled by curiosity, they decide to follow the message and explore this alien planet.

Having read previous reviews of Alien: Covenant, I was very sceptical as to whether this film would be the sequel I wanted it to be. The consensus appeared to be that the film, whilst delivering on entertainment and visuals, rarely contained the essence of horror that had been synonymous with the rest of the series. Where Prometheus had aimed to fascinate with its stimulating origin story, Alien: Covenant was set to add more pieces to finish the puzzle of how Alien came to pass. I tried my best not to let anything I’d heard before taint my experience as I took my seat in the cinema.

Despite the action sequence that unfolds shortly after the trademark Alien titles roll, the first section of the film felt very slow. I found myself struggling to feel the threat and terror that has become associated with Scott’s Alien films, perhaps due to not having met the crew of the ship whilst the event is happening. The slower tempo is understandable after this as we are gradually introduced to the rudely-awakened crew of the Covenant. Unsurprisingly, the main point of focus as we meet the cast is Daniels. Like Noomi Rapace as Shaw before her, Katherine Waterson provides a strong female lead as Daniels, balancing the character’s sense loss and hope with ease, and not to mention providing the only voice of reason when newly appointed Captain Oram decides to detour to the mysterious and uncannily Earth-like planet. Her trepidation over visiting this planet is one that will be undoubtedly shared unanimously by the audience, albeit primarily for her own personal reasons, as me and my friends still to this moment struggle to understand the logic behind the Covenant’s rogue mission to this “perfect” planet that they have somehow managed to miss.

Where Alien: Covenant really succeeds is where things start to go wrong. Curiosity does kill the cat, and the Covenant’s crew are unsurprisingly no exception. In a chain of events that contain gore, tension and hilarity (I found myself laughing out loud at an uncharacteristically slapstick shotgun failure), the tempo accelerates as violently as the deaths of the unfortunate few that succumb to this remorseless hostile world. These are humbling segments that show the weakness of this militarized unit that they seem hopelessly incapable of dealing with the horrors that they are encountering. The creature kills themselves pay tribute to the films gone by; there’s enough chest-bursting and face-hugging to please even the most casual fan of the series. 

The stand out performance, or performances, of this film has to come from Michael Fassbender. Reprising the role of the intellectually curious android David and also undertaking a new one as the identical robotic counterpart Walter, Fassbender delivers with both of his roles. I struggle to remember a film in which an actor has been able to create genuine sexual tension with himself (no, Austin Powers doesn’t count). The verbal sparring Fassbender participates in as David with Walter and the surviving crew members of the Covenant acts as an enthralling stop-gap between the disastrous first landing on the planet and unveiling the dark secrets that will inspire a truly shocking finale. Visually, Walter and David are inseparable, but it’s a tribute to the actor that he can make a simple American accent create two distinctive and believable personalities.

From what I’d heard about the film prior to viewing, there had been some debate as to the overall plot and ending. Personally, I quite liked both. I will refrain from revealing any spoilers, but the arc that had begun with Prometheus I felt was satisfyingly met, with Shaw and David’s story intertwining cleverly with the people of the Covenant. The ending itself was both haunting yet fitting, although I have to admit I had been able to work out the climax earlier than I’d have liked. As someone who longs for jaw dropping plot twists, I was slightly disappointed at the predictability of the ending, but nevertheless I think it fits in nicely with the story.

Having had time to reflect and think about Alien: Covenant, I think it’s fair to say the film has under delivered on the promising platform that Prometheus had built for it. The only character that I felt as though I was really rooting for to survive was Daniels. The rest of the crew felt very disconnected and individualised, with the relationships as artificial as the androids. This seems even more disappointing when you consider the underuse of both James Franco and the returning Guy Pearce, who have all too brief cameos in the film. The scenes that are designed to create unease and fear don’t have the same weight behind them that is traditionally associated with the Alien series. The idea seems to be to replace relentless terror with bucket loads of blood, and this tactic doesn’t quite resonate as well as Scott would have hoped.

Despite it being a reasonably enjoyable watch, and a film that I will undoubtedly watch again, I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed by the levels of terror and fear that are welcome baggage with Scott’s series. Having said all of this, there is still nothing quite like hearing the terrifying screech of the xenomorphs. And let me tell you, in the cinema, everyone can definitely hear you scream.