Audio drama review: Robin Of Sherwood: The Knights Of The Apocalypse by Richard Carpenter

June 28, 2016 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Audio Drama, Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Robin Of Sherwood: The Knights Of The ApocalypseRobin Of Sherwood: The Knights Of The Apocalypse
By Richard Carpenter; Performed by a full cast
2 Hours – CD or Digital Download [AUDIO DRAMA]
Publisher: Spiteful Puppet
Published: June 30, 2016

England in the reign of King John and a dark force is intent on conquest. Only the hooded man can stand against it… The church lies impotent at the mercy of the Pope and the interdict against the kingdom. With the people living in fear and a series of disappearances that threaten the very fabric of noble society, Robin ‘i’ the hood and his band of outlaws must race to rescue the past so that the future may be protected. A journey to Huntingdon and beyond Sherwood will see them battle their most dangerous enemy yet as Herne’s son faces The Knights of the Apocalypse…

If you close your eyes you’ll see it – it being a new two part episode of the classic ITV television series Robin Of Sherwood, minus the grainy 16mm film stock. From the opening Clannad theme – you’ll see it all – that brightly lit forest green, those grey stone castles and churches, the flashing swords, the flying arrows. You’ll of course hear them all too.

Early into The Knights Of The Apocalypse we learn that England is suffering under the “Interdict”, a punishment of all of England for King John’s offence of the Catholic Church. This really happened. The titular Knights of the Apocalypse, though fictional, are said to be a breakaway branch of the Knights Templar – and the ultimate historical destruction of the Templars is very effectively retroactively-foreshadowed in this production.

The two hours, in two parts, had me struggling with the heroes, thinking deep thoughts, rallying against the heavy hand of oppression, chuckling at the baddies, laughing with the heroes, worried at what might possibly happen next, then heart-warmed, and ultimately delighted at the lightfooted sweep all the little details added up to. This is an epic as big as The Swords Of Wayland and as revolutionary as Robin Hood And The Sorcerer.

Barnaby Eaton-Jones, the producer, seems to have made it his mission to make The Knights Of The Apocalypse as true to the original show as humanly possible. Soliciting initial funding using an indiegogo campaign, Eaton-Jones paired a script by the now deceased Richard Carpenter, Robin Of Sherwood‘s creator (he also wrote some of the show’s finest episodes), and tracked down every living member of the original cast to this production. The result is truly tremendous! It is amazing to hear the voices of that old cast once again – Mark Ryan (the brooding Saracen swordsman Nasir), Ray Winstone (forever the hot-headed Will Scarlet), Clive Mantle (smiling and gentle Little John), Jason Connery (that noble second incarnation of Robin, the hooded man), curly haired Judi Trott (voicing the summer maid of Sherwood, Marian), Phil Rose (the friendly friar, Tuck), and Peter Llewellyn Williams (Much, the simple miller’s son).

A lot of folks probably think of Alan Rickman as the most iconic Sheriff of Nottingham – he was terrific – but for me the worst (and by that I mean best) Sheriff of Nottingham will always be Nickolas Grace. Grace is back to his old tricks; playing that cowardly cartoon of law, that malefactor of injustice, all the while wonderfully dripping contempt and venom from every sour word. We get Grace in several scenes, including some with his equally contemptible brother, the Abbot Hugo, played wonderfully once again by Philip Jackson. A few of the voices are new, filling in for the deceased Robert Addie (Guy of Gisbourne) and Daniel Abineri (Herne, now played by his son). But we also get some audio drama stars like Colin Baker and Terry Molloy playing guest villains.

The Knights Of The Apocalypse is a magical experience. Its story will satisfy, so much so that it could slip-in right next to that final TV episode that aired June 28, 1986. No, this is not a reboot, not re-imagining, not a rerun – this is a reunification. You’ll be reunited in righteous camaraderie with the merry folk of Sherwood – doing the work that must be done, for the good of the people, and breaking the law as needs must.

In reading some of the other early reviews I think they’ve short-shrifted both the historicity and the timeliness (or maybe the timelessness) of what’s going on in The Knights Of The Apocalypse. This really isn’t just a story about how a cute cult TV show got a little fan service 30 years after the last episode aired. No, this is a story about power, politics, economics, about religion. This is a story about class and class struggle, human virtue and human vice. For who is King John, that off-screen terror, if not the hubristic government the governs for the rich and not for all? Who is the Sheriff of Nottingham if not a cynical functionary enforcing the unjust laws unequally, and for his own gain? And why is it, exactly, that an old folktale about a band of heroes who break the law for the good of the people so very, very resonant exactly 30 years (or approximately 550 years) after they were first told?

Here’s a recent piece of publicity:

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Bigfootloose And Finn Fancy Free by Randy Henderson

June 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Brilliance Audio - Bigfootloose And Finn Fancy Free by Randy HendersonBigfootloose And Finn Fancy Free (#2 in The Arcana Familia)
By Randy Henderson; Read by Todd Haberkorn
13 Hours 36 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: February 2016

In this sequel to Randy Henderson’s acclaimed debut novel, Finn Fancy Necromancy, Finn Gramaraye is settling back into the real world after his twenty-five-year-long imprisonment in the otherworld of the Fey. He’s fallen in love again with Dawn, the girl next door who waited for him. He’s proved his innocence of the original crime of Dark Necromancy, and he’s finding a place in the family business – operating a mortuary for the Arcane, managing the magical energies left behind when an Arcane being dies to prevent it from harming the mundane world.

This is one of those “if you liked the first book, you’ll like this one” types of sequels. I have a great time with Henderson’s humor and his story is a unique, geekier urban fantasy than normal. It has many of the same urban fantasy tropes, but his twist adds something … less sexy, but filled with humor that mostly works.

And I say “mostly” because, and this could just be me, he’s also one of those author’s obsessed with the ’80s for some reason. I know, write what you know, but it’s almost like some authors (maybe just Henderson and Ernest Cline for all I know) think that you only have street cred if you’re an ’80s geek. Knowing other types of geekery is not at the same level and beneath ’80s geekery.

Now, admittedly, the Finn Fancy series has to do with a guy who gets outcast when he’s a kid during the ’80s and comes back in the present so that’s pretty much all he knows. So I get it, I get why, but at the same time I’m tired of it now. And now that we’re on book two, did we still really need to name all the chapters with ’80s lyrics or songs? I mean, the protagonist is now learning about what happened since his exile.

But those complaints aside, I really did enjoy Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free. Henderson’s humor shines with or without ’80s references and it’s a lot of fun. I like his whole mythos with the fae, fae-bloods, arcana, and any other magical you can think of. It’s a great world and well presented.

For the audio, Todd Haberkorn, the narrator, presents Finn well – relatable, silly, and serious all when he needs to be.

The Finn Fancy series is recommended if you enjoy urban fantasy, but you’ve done the same vampires/wizards/werewolves stories and you need something new…with those same creatures… I promise it’s different too.

3.5 out of 5 Stars (recommended)

Posted by Bryce L.

Review of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

June 25, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Brilliance Audio - Twelve Kings In Sharakhai by Bradley P. BeaulieuTwelve Kings in Sharakhai (The Song of the Shattered Sands, #1)
By Bradley P. Beaulieu; Read by Sarah Coomes
25 Hours 57 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: September 2015

In the city of Sharakhai, Çeda fights in the pits to scrape by a living. She, like so many in the city, pray for the downfall of the cruel, immortal Kings of Sharakhai. Then on the holy night when the powerful yet wretched creatures known as the Asirim wander the city and take tribute in order to protect the Kings, one of them tells Çeda the origin of their dark bargain. And this dangerous secret may be the very key she needs to throw off the iron grip the Kings have had over Sharakhai….

Stunning, immersive world………………check
Deep, rich history……………………..check
Epic scale…………………………..check
Compelling plot……………………………..check
Exciting ending……………………………check

3/5 Stars

So why only 3 stars if this books scores so well on so many levels? Well, it comes down to the characters. I really didn’t feel much for them. Ceda starts out really cool and compelling. She’s the mysterious “White Wolf” who beats the crap out of an abuser in the fighting pit. How much cooler can you get?

But then as the story moves on, she pretty much gets her butt handed to her by just about every single person. She’s not clever and doesn’t say clever things, and she’s, frankly, annoying after a while.

Emre is the other main character and he’s equally as bland. He’s got a great history and great reasons to be a great character, he grew up on the street, helped save Ceda from the street and had it rough. But there’s not much to him. He seems to have trained Ceda in being boring and that’s it.

Now, the ending to this book is great, but had I not listened to this on audiobook I don’t know if I ever would have gotten this far.

And speaking of the audio, the narrator, Sarah Coomes, did do an excellent job. Her accents were, for the most part, on point although she has a tendency to make all older men sound just about the same, not to mention older women, especially seers or spiritual types. They sounded just about the same.

On the whole, I was really impressed with this book … until I started getting bored and the more I started to get bored the more I realized it was because of the main characters, I just didn’t care if they achieved their goals or not and only slightly cared whether they lived to do it or not.

Posted by Bryce L.

Review of Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

March 5, 2016 by · 1 Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris StrugatskyRoadside Picnic
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; Translated by Olena Bormashenko; Read by Robert Forster
7 hours 8 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: October 2, 2012

Eastern European Science Fiction has not been on my RADAR for decades. Of course, it would be easy to blame the Anglo-American dominance in the genre for this, but another reason might have been the ill-timing of my first touchpoints with SF from what was then still (even though barely) the Soviet Union. As a kid, I got a box of books from the German Democratic Republic with Soviet and other Eastern Bloc Science Fiction stories (Utopian Novels they were called to avoid the Anglicism). I read one of them and browsed a few others. Suffice to say, that I was not impressed. Blame my immature literary taste buds, but to me, they seemed overly intellectual, a bit cumbersome, boring. After that I hardly touched any book that came from beyond the Iron Curtain, with few exceptions. What an idiot I had been! A recent trip to Moscow sparked my interest in Russian culture, so I thought, what the heck. Gimme some of those Strugatsky brothers that everyone is going on about. Luckily, there has been a fairly recent re-release of the brothers’ Arkady and Boris Strugatsky most famous work Roadside Picnic. Published in 2012, it not only has been newly translated but it is also based on a restored version of the text prepared by Boris Strugatsky (Arkady having passed away in 1991) to repair the damage that was done to the book by Soviet censorship, including all of the filthy language. It is a testament to the brilliance of the novel that even in its crippled version it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award in 1978 and came second, a rare occurrence for a foreign-language book.

What’s it about then? It’s a First Contact story, with a clever twist. It’s about alien contact alright, but without the aliens. At some point in time, Earth was visited by alien beings, who settled at six different locations around the globe. The result was disastrous with weird phenomena wreaking havoc among the human settlements that were affected. However, this was no attack, no attempt at invading Earth. In fact, no one ever got to see the aliens. There was no attempt at communication and no intention to stay by the visitors. After a while they just left, leaving behind so-called “zones”, in which marvelous artefacts could be found; some completely baffling, others very useful and thus quickly becoming coveted contraband. The problem is that getting these artefacts is highly dangerous. The laws of physics as we know them do not seem to apply in the zones and there is a plethora of hidden traps for unwary explorers. Because of the dangers and study the valuable artefacts (which stubbornly defy any attempt to fully comprehend them), an international research institute has been created which cordons off the zones and occasionally sends in expeditions to collect specimens for examination. Apart from the sanctioned officials there are illegal treasure hunters, called Stalkers, who risk their lives for the high profits the items from the zone yield on the black market.
The story is based around one of the visitation zones, near a small town in Canada and is mainly told from the point of view of Redrick “Red” Schuhart. Red is a stalker, who at the beginning of the novel is employed by the Institute where is experience in the zone is needed when he accompanies a researcher into the zone. The expedition ends badly, Kirill, the Russian scientist has an accident and dies shortly after his return from the zone. This doesn’t stop Red from being a Stalker, and the further the novel progresses it becomes clear that although he doesn’t mind the money it is not his only reason to risk his live. The zone has become an obsession for Schuhard and nothing can keep him out. The novel follows Schuhart for eight years, in episodic chapters with a few changes in points of view but always coming back to him. He has good times and not-so-good, going in and out of jail, sometimes living the good life from the profits and sometimes worrying what will happen to his wife and kid when he’s in prison. In the meantime, life around the zone is changing, security is getting tighter, the government wants to re-settle all of the remaining population. No wonder considering that the dead are returning from their graves and reclaim their lives among their families and the children of frequent visitors to the zone are showing strange mutations. Life is getting harder for Stalkers, as not only does it get more and more difficult to get into the zone, but the amount of artefacts dwindles until only one big prize seems to be left. A golden orb that can grant its owner any wish – unless it really does come from the heart. This is what Redrick Schuhart is going for in the final chapter of the novel. But – what to wish for?

Schuhart reminds one of the tough, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and chain-smoking protagonists of a Hard Boiled detective novel and to no small degree is it exactly that language and approach to the narrative that makes it so accessible. Yes, this book touches on some pretty philosophical topics – this is Literature with a capital L – but in the best tradition of the Science Fiction genre, it does so in wrapped in a damn good story. What can human being ultimately know? Could we really ever hope to communicate with an alien species or are we just like some frightened small animals coming out of hiding only after the picnic party has left and all that remains to do is to fight for the scraps they left behind? The narrator, Robert Forster, does a fine job indeed, breathing life to Redrick Schuhart, both when he’s being a cynical bastard and when he’s ridden by doubt and despair. One could not have wished for a better narrator for the audio book.

The recording concludes with a very interesting afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the long and complicated history of getting the book through the Kafkaesque maze of censorship and bureaucracy that was the Soviet publishing industry. The foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin that is included in print version is missing from the audio but that’s about the only desideratum of an otherwise brilliant production. Highly recommended!

Posted by Carsten Schmitt

Review of Sphere by Michael Crichton

March 1, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

sphereSphere
By Michael Crichton; Read by Scott Brick
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
[UNABRIDGED] – 13 hours

Themes: / aliens / ocean / thriller /

Publisher summary:

The gripping story of a group of American scientists sent to the ocean floor to investigate an alien ship, only to confront a terrifying discovery that defies imagination.

Executive Summary: A strong start and a pretty strong finish, but I found a lot of the last quarter or so on the slow side. This is a pretty solid 3.5 stars that could be rounded up or down depending on my mood at the time.

Audiobook: This book had been released in audio before, but for some reason Brilliance Audio seems to be (re)releasing a bunch of his books recently. Scott Brick does his usual quality job. Whenever you see Mr. Brick’s name on an audiobook, you know you’re going to get a good reading.

Full Review
I came into this book thinking it was a reread. I did a handful of books by Mr. Crichton when I was in high school, and I thought this was among them. As I got further into the book, I became convinced otherwise.

I found the beginning very interesting. A psychologist is brought in to help with a crash that turns out to be a spaceship on the bottom of the ocean. I liked the mystery and investigation aspect of the story, more than the viewpoint of the main character itself though.

As the plot develops and we learn more about not only the ship, but the sphere it contains, I found my mind starting to wander. I didn’t get attached to any of the characters. I found myself annoyed by most of the scientists. Several of them seemed to be more concerned about being published and/or their place in history than the actual investigation itself. I’ve always been more of an engineer than a scientist, but I don’t know why anyone would want to deal with that.

As with the other Michael Crichton books I’ve read, this one takes science and posits some plausible seeming possibilities. He always seemed to have a knack for the techno-thriller in a way that doesn’t feel cheesy and over the top.

I’m not sure if I was disappointed with the truth of the Sphere, or if my detachment from the characters just got to me, but by about the 50% mark, I found my mind starting to wander a bit. The ending was pretty strong though, and probably saved it from me rounding down to a three.

I’ve been wanting to take a break from SFF this year, and while this is definitely still in the Sci-Fi wheelhouse, it’s more of a thriller with a sci-fi premise than a pure science fiction book. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Timeline or Jurassic Park, but I’m glad I finally read it.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Solar Express by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

January 27, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Solar ExpressSolar Express
By L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (review is of the print)
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: November 2015

Themes: / space opera / military sci-fi / alien artifacts / science fiction /

Publisher summary:

You can’t militarize space. This one rule has led to decades of peaceful development of space programs worldwide. However, increasing resource scarcity and a changing climate on Earth’s surface is causing some interested parties to militarize, namely India, the North American Union, and the Sinese Federation.

The discovery of a strange artifact by Dr. Alayna Wong precipitates a crisis. What appears to be a hitherto undiscovered comet is soon revealed to be an alien structure on a cometary trajectory toward the sun. Now there is a race between countries to see who can study and control the artifact dubbed the “Solar Express” before it perhaps destroys itself.

Leading the way for the North American Union is Alayna’s friend, Captain Christopher Tavoian, one of the first shuttle pilots to be trained for combat in space. But, as the alien craft gets closer to its destination, it begins to alter the surface of the sun in strange new ways, ways that could lead Alayna to revolutionary discoveries-provided Chris can prevent war from breaking out as he navigates among the escalating tensions between nations.

This is an unusual book to review, since it feels unstuck in time. On the one hand, it reads like a mid-20th-century science fiction adventure, with heroic pilot and astronomer successfully solving space problems. On the other hand, it earnestly points a century ahead, to a world built from concerns very prominent in 2015.

Solar Express is about an object hurtling across the solar system during the year 2114. Two main characters engage with it, and with each other. The astronomer, Alayna Wong-Grant, works in a lunar observatory by herself, and discovers what seems like a comet. The pilot, Chris Tavoian, is tasked with exploring it. Much of the novel’s dramatic power comes from the interaction of these three, who nearly never touch each other.

The setting looms large. The world of 2114 is dominated by an East Asian polity, the Sinese republic (I think), in competition with a rising India and a sidelined North American entity (the US plus Canada, maybe including Mexico). The 21st century saw climate change occur, along with several bad wars, so there’s a touch of post-catastrophe in the staging. 2114 also sees Sinese-Indian competition rise to the brink of war, which should have added more dramatic punch to the novel than it actually did.

I began these notes by mentioning older sf, because my reading was haunted by many ghosts. Arthur C. Clarke’s great Rendezvous with Rama hovered over every page, as a humans try in vain to make sense of a cryptic alien artifact headed towards the sun. The super-competent pilot felt like a time traveler from the 1940s or 50s, as he successfully lands a plumb assignment, conducts geopolitical analysis, pilots expertly, investigates an alien machine, deals with foreign forces, deals with them again, and survives physical extremity.

That competence actually dragged down the middle third of Solar Express for me. It seemed like Tavoian’s explorations occurred at a snail’s pace, with a lot of repetition (performing similar tasks, writing to people in order to describe what we’ve just seen) and very slow progress.

The world-building wasn’t as successful as it could have been, as I noted above. For one we get too many historical observations from main characters discussing the present. People have a fondness for early 21st century history, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in that world – i.e., there’s no sense that people are history obsessives personally (as in many Poul Anderson stories) or culturally (check Harrison’s Centauri Device for an example) (57, 67, 130, 156, 232). Example: “Or [a person] believes that God in on their side. Like the Taliban in Pakistan seventy years ago.” (130) That’s an awkward reach to the reader. Imagine if a novel taking place in the present had characters in daily life – not historians – constantly referencing the War of 1812. Some of the non-narrative documents do a better job, including a kind of news + scandal sheet and selected articles.

Speaking of history, the world’s rush to war was a powerful context for the alien express, again reminding me of Arthur C. Clarke (2010 this time), but it played out oddly. The great powers confrontation is set up nicely about a 100 pages in, then ratchets up too slowly, with too much repetition (India threatens to use killer missiles, the North American president advises calm). We don’t get much insight into the crisis and its logic, perhaps because of our two-character focus.

The romance was gently handled, as each character has a lot on their plate. Besides their major work, each faces a family crisis at a distance. Astronomer and pilot have a geeky correspondence habit of exchanging political quotes with each other, the tenor of which reveal a grumpy, rather conservative outlook, which just lightly interacts with the rest of the plot.

And yet I enjoyed myself. I love stories of space adventure, and was fascinated by how this one played out. I wanted to see the alien artifact, to learn how the Sinese were responding, and what the heck was going on with the sun. Again, like a mid-20th-century sf novel, I was engaged.

As a work of hard science fiction, Solar Express is unapologetic. Like The Martian this novel zeroes in on science and technology challenges, from air filtration to spectroscopy to cleaning up lunar dust to the details of orbital mechanics. Check the jaw-dropping opening paragraph, which is a kind of dare or gauntlet hurled at the reader, starting off with a nearly 300-word first line about the physical and administrative (!) details of the moon base. Or read how the title first appears:

But by the time this object nears Mercury, it will be traveling at somewhere in the range of sixty lays per second, accelerating to as high as 250 by the time it reaches perihelion… a real solar express. (142)

Modessit does well pedagogically on this front, giving us detailed information, incremental developments, discussions, and solutions, while not stooping so low as to introduce many concepts.

So…. recommended as a fun read for people interested in hard sf and/or with a love of mid-20th-century space adventure stories. Not recommended for people who don’t read science fiction.

Posted by Bryan A.

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