Hyddenworld: Spring Review

hyddenworldspringx200William Horwood has been a favourite author of mine since I was old enough to read and comprehend the intricacy of his Duncton Wood series, and the Hyddenworld series is his return to fiction after a hiatus of almost ten years. To say I had high hopes and was excited is an understatement. Especially given the elegant cover.

Spring is the beginning of a new epic series, a four-parter as indicated by having seasonal titles, set in England. It begins with a story of eternal love, a great caster called Beornamund and his love Imbolc, or ‘spring’. He cast her a necklace with a stone for each of the seasons, but it becomes shattered and all the stones are lost. Imbolc becomes the Peace-Weaver for generations, travelling the hyddenworld on her white horse, her presence required until the stone of winter drops from the pendant her love made her.

Long ago, the human and hydden worlds separated. Humans have lost all ability to see and enter the hyddenworld, which exists beneath and around the current human worlds. But the two worlds are about to intersect, and the prophesy about a giant-born child and the appearance of the Shield Maiden, Imbolc’s successor, are coming to pass.

Wyrd (a Hydden’s fate, say) leads a small group to witness the attempted murder of the giant-born boy and human girl crucial to the changes about to happen. The group, with a renowned Hydden scholar, a genius, a journeyman and the Peace-Weaver witness agents of the Hydden’s ruling class, the Fyrd, attempting to cause a car accident and the death of the children. With the assistance of the Hydden the two survive.

The story returns 12 years later. The boy, Jack, has been in care up until his coming of age, his skin scarred by fire from the wreck. Katherine, the girl, is about to lose her mother from the long-term injuries from the car accident. They reconnect and Jack comes to stay as part of the group living in the house of Margaret and Arthur Foale in Berkshire. Arthur, a scholar of the time where human and hyddenworlds were linked, has gone missing, presumably lost in the hyddenworld and unable to get back. Those who remain begin to get to know each other again and reconnect, in time for Katherine’s mother’s death. Up until this time, they’ve been protected by magic gifted by the Hydden group that one rescued them.

At this time of grief, malevolent Fyrd forces from the hyddenworld are able to find the two of them again, and thus begins their journey. And this is where the narrative starts to pick up.

The Hydden world is a rich one, full of traditional fantasy elements: heroes, quests, portals and love, both romantic and platonic. It even has global political intrigue and explores the culture of remote Western European villages. I love how William Horwood has brought the ancient mythos into the current hyddenworld events. His world-building, as always, is flawless.

Compared to his previous work, I find these books more simplistic in language than others I have read, and while the political landscape was interesting, it was definitely without the devilish intrigue that set the Duncton Wood series apart for me.The chapters are very short, which can get frustrating when you’re getting the feel for a storyline, and it felt like it jumped around. Some people will like the more casual style, but for me, it wasn’t his best work. Our protagonists, although teenagers, are a little shallow in their personal growth and in the depths of character demonstrated. There is a portion of the book where Jack goes through a physical and mental trial, and I like the way Horwood dealt with it; not with cloying pity but with stoic understanding and compassion. But the hydden characters like Bedwyn Stort and Master Brief, the Lord Festoon and his friend Parlance, are beautifully flawed and interesting characters, and maybe intentionally are the dashes of colour needed in the narrative. The relationships between the characters is what holds the plot together and is the real strength of the book.

While this is not my favourite book written by Horwood, I am waiting to get the second book, Awakening, from the library. For myself, I liked the world enough to want to return and see where the story is heading. Given William Horwood’s ability, I think it’s worth investing the time to see how this story ends. For a newer reader, I might suggest picking up Duncton Wood to see where I am coming from. I definitely still think it is worth reading, and would recommend this book with its more conversational style to anyone who can’t devote long hours to long chapters or who perhaps don’t want to be left with perplexity or questions. You can find out more about William Horwood and his work at his website.

You can also read my reviews of Harvest (Book III) here on my blog, and the review for Winter (Book IV) over at SQ Mag.

Her: a love story of the digital age




I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity. -Amy, Spike Jonze’s Her




There are people amongst us who will tell you that love cannot be bound by the physical; that age, race, gender, location, language do not matter. What Spike Jonze does with Her is exactly this; he uses a science fiction romance to knock down preconceptions about what it is to love.

The world’s first artificial intelligence in an operating system enters the life of our protagonist Theodore Twombly, a man who makes his living by writing sentimental letters for others. She calls herself Samantha and becomes a vital touchstone for a man who is emotionally crippled after a marriage breakdown.

Her is an exceptionally well-written film that pulls no punches on what it means to have a relationship where one person does not have a physical body. It addresses the problems, the prejudices that other people will have, and that love doesn’t always work forever and nor is it a one-size-fits-all deal. It speaks to the disconnectedness of the digital age, but the yearning to connect that results in the use of chat rooms and social networks to replace it.

Joaquim Phoenix is well cast as Theodore, a man full of meditations on his own insignificance and failures. His wonderfully expressive face had to carry a large part of the movie and he was superb. Scarlet Johansson managed to convey so much emotion and nuance as a disembodied voice that I have to say, I was impressed. Amy Adams’ is exceptional in the supporting role of Theodore’s friend Amy, a woman going through her own divorce.

Jonze gained my admiration, though, for the sensitive handling of the love affair. He didn’t make Theodore a shut-in, or a person who has problems connecting with others or understanding emotion, though it would have been easier. Theodore’s letters, in fact, were a beautiful plot point, and though they only went to further some minor story and flesh out Theodore’s emotive nature, they were a highlight for me all the same.  Samantha wasn’t a pushover or cruel, and her embracing of the life she had, complete with her insecurities and existential crises, was a gentle reminder to all of us that we get too blasé about the opportunity of our existence. He didn’t make their love a thing to be pitied or to cause concern for Theodore. It wasn’t stigmatised because of their different forms or different origins. This was reinforce by Amy, who doesn’t judge him, and encourages him by describing her own personal journey: “While I’m here, I want to allow myself joy”.

Her boasts a maturity in love, recognising that it is changing, growing and evolving, sometimes beyond the people we used to love. No one’s fault; again, it just is. And that one love doesn’t detract from another. Samantha says, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love.” This, like the note that Jonze ends the film on is perfect; it’s connected and poignant, without trying to cram another story or moral into the ending.

For me, the only detractions were some minor details in the plot to do with Samantha learning behaviours it takes bitter life experience for most others to learn, as well as behaviour that she considers unacceptable herself earlier in the film. Acceptance of their type of relationship is also more rapid than what I would expect, given today’s fairly rigid societal construct.

I have to recommend this film as an outside-the-box love story with a remarkable cast and life-affirming messages. I can only hope that one day, when AI does have a place in our society, that we can all be as considerate as Spike Jonze.

Real does not equal always strong

I stumbled across a discussion the other day about the findings of Gender Inequality in Film (the infographic is disheartening but exceptional work by the team at the New York Film Academy). One of the comments attracted my attention, and I’ve been musing on it since.

The gist of this woman’s comment was that Dr. Ryan Stone in the movie Gravity, the female protagonist played by Sandra Bullock, set the cause of feminism back by her actions. This had me puzzled and confused.

For those who haven’t seen the film, I would suggest that you do. It’s spectacular, and the production team have focused on beautiful starscapes and realistic disorientation in the vastness of the universe around. If you haven’t seen it, please read on. I don’t think any of the spoilers I mention should give away the story, beyond any trailers released or reviews read.

Dr. Stone is a medical engineer who is recruited by NASA as a Specialist, because of the advanced electronics work she does at home, and in the beginning of the movie is on a spacewalk finishing the last of the repairs on the Hubble Telescope. What happens from there is that a debris field hits the Telescope, her vessel and leaves her spinning out into space, cut off from command at Huston and without her fellow astronauts. The rest of the movie is about her bid to get home, aided by veteran astrounaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney).

Most of the movie, she is out of her depth. Out of control and unaided. Spinning out in space, untethered, is but one of many problems she faces. Now, as a minimally trained astronaut, and one on her first mission, facing disaster and possible lonely death in space, she panics. The sounds of the movie are all heavy breathing and shrill calls for assistance and trying to reach Huston. Even with training, I imagine that spinning out into space like this is every astronaut’s nightmare, as it’s a death sentence when there is no assistance.

As it goes on, every event mounts another hurdle for her; not one plan comes off as it should. She is unable to be assisted by any one else. She is required to rely on the memory of the minimal training she has to fly aircraft that does not have instructions in the same language nor the same set-up. She faces up to having to confront the same event that last caused her distress to escape once again.

Admittedly, at one point, she gives up. She believes she cannot succeed. That she is without any assistance. She cries, she talks to herself, and says farewell to her life in the only way she feels she has left.

Nothing that she did was not an emotion I could not understand. Overwhelmed, in a seemingly hopeless and life-threatening situation, she alternated between coping and not coping. The character of Dr. Stone was an engineer, not an astronaut who had spent all their life training to be on the International Space Station.

There is a difference between being real and setting back the cause of feminism. Moments of weakness, of giving up, do not mean a person is not strong. In fact, sometimes realise which battles are not worth your fight is intelligent. Recognising that you are overwhelmed does not mean you are less of a person.

Just because Dr. Stone did not act in a gung-ho manner, like a two-dimensional male lead charging in to save the day and damn the odds, does not mean the character let down the cause of feminism. Because you rely on the experience of a more senior member of the team, it does not make you useless or less of a person.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes a real woman character in fiction and in film. Let me share my thoughts. A real woman is someone an audience can relate to, who lives by the rules she deems are important. A real woman has a story that has an effect on the way she reacts to situations. A real woman relates to her environment, settings and surrounds in a believable way.

In the same way, feminism is not answering all questions and achieving all goals on your own, without gathering and relying on experience of others. Feminism means being equal in rights to others; so has an equal right to life, to the pursuit of their own happiness and projects not controlled by another; not that an individual never accepts assistance or never works with another.

Gravity is a film that went for realism in its production and in its storyline, particularly with their female lead. I would highly recommend it as a film to see, as an offering that is a little different and wholly engrossing, and attempted to be true to the actual experience of being in space.

For those who have thoughts on Dr. Stone in Gravity, or “real women” in cinema, I hope you’ll share them and we can have a discussion on this topic.

Transitioning from the page to the big screen


This week, I went to see the much anticipated cinematic release of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Recognising its name as a quintessential science fiction read, and a highly awarded one at that, I have been looking forward to seeing it. So much so that I also read the book.

I hear you all thinking: Big mistake! It’s a well-tested fact that reading the book often leads to disappointment in the theatre. I suppose I had been lulled into a false sense of security with the big hit cinematic adaptions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games.

What I tend to find with successful cinematic adaptions is that they bring a stunning visual element to the table, while retaining the essence of the original novel. They lead the audience to feel the protagonist’s pain rather than telling them about it. They take the places they’d only ever imagined and give them a visual spectacular.

For those that haven’t read Ender’s Game, it’s set on a future Earth that has been twice the victim of attacks from a massive alien fleet, and it was only the uniting of the different world factions that allowed humanity to beat the attackers, the buggers (or Formics).  The collaborative international and interstellar protection department, the International Fleet, start selecting gifted children for roles in command of the war, due to their quick reflexes and malleable minds.

When reading the book, it really struck me as a story of the isolation that brilliant young adults often feel. At home, they aren’t necessarily understood. At school, they are distanced from their intellectually inferior peers or they are positioned in direct competition with those peers that might understand them. In this world that Orson Scott Card created, they are allowed to reach their full potential and are listened to and respected by adults. Of course, there is manipulation too, but this is considered part of the training. Ender in the story is continually isolated as part of developing him to his fullest potential, but he learns to win his peers to his side with respect, skill and strategy. Keep in mind, he’s ten when he graduates to command school, where he’ll learn to There’s also a strong socio-political secondary story involving Ender’s also brilliant siblings, but that is not relevant to this discussion.

The producers of the movie had two facets that would make it a brilliant movie. One, dazzle everyone with the beauty of space and zero-gravity combat. Two, sell the story as the epic it is, by focusing the story on Ender, saviour of the earth. Sadly, I think that they failed on both these counts.

Zero-gravity battles in battle school were how Ender won his team. For what was a year of his life, this was glossed over. You lost the sense of his triumph, the camaraderie of the battle school when they got into the teams and his inspiration of the others. Not to mention that there was only two sessions in the battle dome. With the amazing ability for virtual effects production teams have at their disposal in this age, there is no excuse for not allocating a large proportion of screen time and budget to it.

What was also part of Ender’s brilliance was taken away by adult producers, forgetting that the story of the brilliant kid is what makes the whole book. Motivations and intelligent manoeuvres that are his, they put into the adult machinations, which messes with the brilliance of what spoke to a generation of pre-teens and people that felt they never fit.

They also turned an ending of maturity and compassion, of a soldier learning to change to fit peacetime, and made it trite. There was none of the feeling of understanding, family, the understanding of impending doom, or of forgiveness.

And while Sir Ben Kingsley is a great actor, and did a fine job portraying the Maori soldier Mazer Rackham, his accent wavered between New Zealander (though most of his New Zealander vowel sounds were good) , Australian and British. But there was one part where he described the traditional face tattooing, and I just didn’t feel the reverence and gravity in it. When one of several tried-and-tested Maori actors, like Cliff Curtis or Temuera Morrison to name a few, would have known that feeling and could have done justice to it, it just feels like a waste.

Other conversions of popular speculative fiction have been successful because they turned their stories to spectacle, but didn’t lose sight of the themes of the original story. Lord of the Rings mostly pleased fans known as some of the worst pedants and nitpickers of all the fandoms. Changes made were largely grudgingly allowed, particularly as they came from other original texts from the same world. Harry Potter largely stuck to the story and added lots of magic to scenes pre-teens to adults had been imagining for years. And Hunger Games keeps promising more blockbuster for your buck.

To transition a book successfully to an on-screen experience without destroying it for the fan base that will ultimately be a big part of your audience, it needs to be imagined in big, beautiful spectacle. It needs to remain true to the main characters and themes of the book. Ender’s Game was always going to be hard to get out of Ender’s head and onto the screen, but it disappointed the promise of a highly-regarded book transitioned at this stage in the evolution of cinema. Especially given the speculative fiction translations that had come before.

Spoken history fantasy: review of Anansi Boys

I admit it; I am a fan of Neil Gaiman. At the beginning of the month, I reviewed The Ocean at the End of the Lane for my work with SQ Mag.

At Neil’s talk for the Vancouver Writer’s Fest, I noticed a number of fans with this book under their arm. It was his last adult novel, before this latest release. So I thought I would give it a go, honestly not knowing what to expect.

Anansi Boys draws on the storytelling element of oral traditions, particularly of the people of the Carribbean and their roots in the rich mythology of African culture. It follows Fat Charlie, a rather unassuming young man with major problems with his father and a life devoid of any real spark. When his father dies, Fat Charlie returns home and learns a startling fact: he has a brother. A chain of events, kicked off my Fat Charlie’s errant brother Spider, leads to the destruction of the dull life that Fat Charlie holds dear.

What follows is a story about coincidences spiralling out of control, aided by a touch of old world magic. It is a story about growing up, about making your way in the world when you’re in the shadow of big characters about you. It’s about family, and especially how you cannot choose them. But there’s also a quest element, which really keeps the story in tone with the oral traditions and links in to cultural manhood ceremonies of older traditions.

My favourite parts are the snippets of folklore. I was a big fan of Brer Rabbit stories as a small child, with their skewed morality of tricking the greedy or lazy. These were based in African tales, told often of Anansi in African mythology, well researched by Neil Gaiman I am sure. There are several small stories within the novel and I enjoyed these fable breaks. The perception of the shadowy realms of magic and ancient power of the mystical run strongly through this book, and are described well.

It is not the strongest of Neil Gaiman’s novels that I’ve read. Some of the characters weren’t as real to me as some in his other novels, even if they had some endearing traits. For this novel, there’s a lot of interplay of mysticism and the supernatural, and the nicely packaged ending created a few moments that felt a bit forced for me.

If a new reader of Neil, I wouldn’t suggest starting with this one, as I would prefer you fell in love with his work. For those with a love of oral traditions, it’s a great book for weaving in tidbits of the stories, and I think you might enjoy the main arch as well.

Have you read the book? I’d like to know what you thought of it.