Pulp Fiction

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Quentin Tarantino

Jules and Vincent are hired killers, Butch is a punch-drunk boxer with one last pay day ahead of him. Marcellus Wallace is a crime boss who only likes to be fucked by Mrs Wallace, and Mrs Wallace, well she wants to dance, she wants to win, and maybe she wants a hit of what she thinks is cocaine.

Over the space of a few days their lives will intersect, and not everyone will get out of this story alive.

Reading a script is a lot different to reading a novel. For starters they tend to be a much quicker read—realistically you should be able to read a script in the time it takes you to watch the completed film. A script is a story boiled down to its constituent elements, with every ounce of fat trimmed from a story’s bones.

There’s a rush to reading a script, especially a good script, and whatever his faults—and I think he has a few—reading the script to Pulp Fiction is a salient reminder that Mr Quentin Tarantino has (had?) a huge amount of talent.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction dozens of times, and I’ve always thought it is a fantastic film (and it remains to this day my favourite QT film) but even so reading the script has made me love it more.

Weaving multiple narratives, back and forth in time, Tarantino produced an elegant, finely tuned story that even on the page makes perfect sense, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gives you no choice but to come along for the ride.

And what a ride it is.

Tarantino’s dialogue crackles with electricity, each individual conversation sparks more vividly than entire screenplays by other writers. Sure, there’s an argument that all of his characters sound kinda the same, but when the dialogue is this good, and when it’s back before he began believing his own hype, who damn well cares?

This was bought me as a birthday present by friends because I’d told them I was contemplating trying my hand at screenplays, and if you’re going to learn why not learn from the best. There’s a reason this script won an Oscar after all.

It’s interesting as well to catch sight of bits that didn’t make the final film, either because they were excised completely, or because they were reworked during filming (and I have to say this was always for the better).

Pulp Fiction’s a great film, and the script was a great (not to mention educational) read.

Although mention of Harvey Weinstein in the credits is more than a little sobering mind you…

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Revenger

Posted: October 10, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Alastair Reynolds

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It’s Tens of thousands of years in the future, yet humanity prevail, living within the Congregation, what was once the solar system, only now planets have been long shattered, and the Congregation consists of millions of tiny outposts. Moons and planetoids and space stations. It’s roughly the eighteenth century of the 13th occupation and, in order to try and save their family from bankruptcy, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness have signed on aboard a sun-jammer captained by a man named Rakamore. Rakamore’s ship is one of hundreds that make a living by cracking ‘baubles’, planetoids surrounded by impenetrable force fields that, every so often when the conditions are right, become accessible, allowing those brave, or foolhardy, enough to approach time to scavenge for ancient technology.

It’s a perilous enough way to earn a living, but there are even worse dangers out there in the void between worlds, notably the legendary, and extremely vicious, pirate, Bosa Sennen, and when Rackamore crosses paths with Sennen’s night-jammer all hell will break lose, and Fura Ness will have to grow up fast if she’s to save herself, her sister, and her crewmates.

So, apparently this is a young adult book, which I only discovered once I’d finished reading it. I have to say that nothing in the novel screamed YA at me, aside from the young age of its protagonist, Fura Ness, but a teenage hero does not necessarily a young adult book mean, and as far as I was concerned it was an adult novel (but maybe that’s how the best YA should work). Anyway, there’s no foul language or explicit sexual content, however the book is quite bloodthirsty in places.

Whether it’s YA or not is irrelevant. All I know is that I really enjoyed it!

Sure, it took me a few chapters to acclimatise to the universe Reynolds has created here, but once I did I was well and truly hooked. A few silly missteps aside (the police have flashing blue epaulets!) the Congregation and those that populate it are fascinating. By hurling humanity so far into the future Reynolds has carte blanche to create a world at once very different from our own, yet also very similar.

At its core this is a tale of pirates and buried treasure, complete with piratical dialogue that manages to sit just the right side of yo-ho-ho parody, but Reynolds also finds time to drop in a subplot about nefarious banking practices and a wider story about aliens that I’m guessing will be picked up in any sequel, and I really hope there is a sequel because I definitely want to follow more adventures of Fura Ness.

The first-person narrative does limit the story sometimes, and lots of things happen off camera, but by letting Fura tell the story we see how she grows from a naïve young girl into a hardened spacefarer, and this also provides Reynolds with an excuse to explain the minutiae of the universe he’s created, since Fura and her sister had a sheltered upbringing.

If the book has one fault it’s that some of the secondary characters seem a bit interchangeable. Fura serves on several ships and at times I wanted to have a better handle on her crewmates, and sometimes I had to flick back to remember who a certain character was.

That’s a minor quibble though, because on the whole this was a hugely enjoyable story with a great central character and, like I say, I’d like to see future voyages of the Revenger!

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Posted: October 5, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Mark Strong.

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It’s ok. I’ll take the next ski-lift.

It’s been a year since Eggsy (Egerton) saved the world and became a fully-fledged Kingsman, taking on the codename Galahad, which had been his mentor Harry (Firth) Hart’s. He’s now working full time as an agent, and is living with Tilde (Hanna Alström) the crown princess of Sweden who he rescued at the end of the first film (and who had a rather novel way of, ahem, rewarding him for saving the world!)

An encounter with an old foe at first seems like nothing more than a case of attempted revenge, but it soon becomes clear that a larger plot is at hand orchestrated by Poppy Adams (Moore) head of the Golden Circle, a huge drug cartel. All too soon the Kingsman suffer major losses, and for Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) the only hope lies in contacting a secret American intelligence agency known as Statesman, whose front is a whisky distillery in Kentucky. When Poppy’s diabolical scheme is revealed the head of Statesman, Champagne (Jeff Bridges) throws the full weight of his agency behind the Englishmen, including assigning agent Tequila (Channing Tatum) and tech specialist Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) to help. There’s also assistance to be had from an old friend that no one expected to see again.

But not everyone is eager to stop Poppy’s plan, so can Eggsy save the day again, and can he maintain a relationship with Tilde whilst still undertaking some of the dirtier aspects of his job as a spy?

 

First off let’s state the obvious. The Golden Circle is nowhere near as good a film as The Secret Service was. That said, this is nowhere near the disaster some critics have suggested it is, though it is amazing that a film with so many flaws can still be hugely enjoyable.

It’s a bloated film though, and riding on the back of the initial film’s huge 2015 success Vaughn has secured a bigger budget, and seems to have spent a lot of it on hiring a huge retinue of famous faces, many of whom feature prominently in the film’s marketing yet don’t feature so heavily in the actual film. The worst example of this is Tatum, and if you’re a fan of the guy (and I’ve liked him in most things I’ve seen him in) then prepare for disappointment because he’s barely in the film at all—though there is an interesting tease at the end which suggests we may see more of him next time out. Bridges and Berry get more screen time, but neither is exactly integral to the plot. Bridges just hams it up and basically just gives orders, and Berry gets little more to do than provide Merlin with someone to talk to.

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“Sorry, we’re in the film five minutes and get paid how much?”

Yes much as with the first film, the female characters do tend to come off badly, from Berry to poor old Roxy (shunted off on a weather balloon in the first film she fares even worse here) and though it’s nice to see some continuity with the return of Tilde, she doesn’t get much to do either.

Thankfully Julianne Moore gets much more to sink her teeth into as Poppy, a deranged mastermind with a penchant for 1950s Americana and a chip on her shoulder because drugs get a bum rap compared to booze and fags.

There’s a nice performance from Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones’ Oberyn Martell) as Statesman Whisky (who’s arguably the most prominent Statesman screen time wise) and though some have sneered, I found the low-key performance from newcomer Reginald Dwight quite fun.

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A gentleman always keeps his gun dry.

The heart of the film, as before is the relationship between Eggsy and Harry, and yes it’s a spoiler, but given they’ve plastered Colin Firth all over the trailers and the posters, I’d be amazed if anyone went in and was surprised to see Harry back from the dead. I won’t go into details about how he’s resurrected. Suffice to say it’s ridiculous, but Egerton, Firth and Strong collectively make it work, and frankly given how cool Harry Hart is, I’m tempted to give the filmmakers a bye.

Egerton continues to impress as Eggsy, switching effortlessly between working class kid from the wrong side of the tracks and debonair superspy with nary a missed beat. He has an effortless natural charm that makes him difficult not to root for. As for Firth his charm is far more practiced, but no less affecting, and I could watch the two of them all day.

Which is just as well given some of the places the film goes.

Yes, it’s time to talk about Glastonbury.

Anyone who’s seen the first film will remember the bit at the end, what was seen as an offensive misstep by many. Now I’ve gone out to bat for that scene a few times. It’s not that I think it’s funny, and it isn’t that I think the film needs it, but in what is essentially a Roger Moore Bond film turned up to eleven, there is a certain logic to the film finishing like a Moore Bond, only more so.

I have no desire to defend the Glastonbury scene. If the bum joke straddled the line then what happens in the yurt here crosses the line. As the wise philosopher Joey from Friends so eloquently put it. “You crossed the line, in fact you’re so far past the line you can’t even see it anymore. The line is a dot to you!” It’s gross and offensive and effectively features sexual assault. Of course, all the Bonds have seduced women to gain an edge over the years, but there’s something especially icky here, taking the juvenility of Austin Powers and turning it up to eleven, and if what happens in Glasto stays in Glasto, and I was able to set it aside and enjoy the remainder of the film, be under no illusions that this was down to masterful direction or nuanced writing. No, it was down to Egerton’s performance.

I look forward to Kingsman 3, I just hope Vaughn doesn’t feel the need to outdo himself once again, because he doesn’t need to do it. He has a great cast and a fun universe. Which doesn’t mean I want him to play it safe, he just needs someone to point out when he’s gone too far. Frankly I’d expect screenwriter Jane Goldman to do just that.

It’s too long and too baggy, and shoehorns way too many big names in to no great effect, but with Egerton and Firth on top form, and with a slew of exciting set pieces this is an enjoyable romp. I just hope Vaughn tones down the mysoginy, celeb cameos and too new the knuckle (literally) stuff next time out. I’m nowhere near being tired of Eggsy and Harry, but I might be a lot closer to being tired of Vaughn!

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That’s not a Mark Strong. This is a Mark Strong.

Victoria & Abdul

Posted: September 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

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The James Bond reboot took a lot of people by surprise.

The year is 1887, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, and as part of the celebrations two Indian servants, Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) and chosen to travel to England to present the Queen with a ceremonial gold coin. It’s only supposed to be a brief trip, but after Abdul catches the eye of Victoria (Dench) he and Mohammed find themselves drawn into the royal household.

As time passes the Queen becomes more and more enamoured of Abdul, and as his star rises, so too does the ire of the members of the Royal household, and especially of Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Izzard) and plans are drawn up to turn the Queen against Abdul and send the upstart Indian back home.

 

Victoria and Abdul has come in for some stick, and whilst I can see where much of it is coming from, I think some of it is unfair. The film isn’t perfect, but it isn’t quite as lightweight as some critics have suggested.

For a long time the presence of Abdul Karim, a Muslim at the side of Queen Victoria, was a story that few people knew about, so vehemently had his presence been excised from history, and part of the film’s problem is that the story almost seems to fantastical to be true, which is a shame given much of what we see here is presented quite accurately. The producers don’t help matters by claiming it’s ‘mostly’ inspired by true events.

There’s a nice symmetry to Dench playing Victoria once more opposite a man who provided companionship to Victoria after the loss of Albert. In 1997 this was in Mrs Brown opposite Billy Connolly as John Brown but now the object of her affection is amiable Bollywood star Fazal.

The cast are uniformly good, but really it’s Dench’s film, as she plays a woman who is incredibly powerful, yet seems a prisoner of that power, an old woman who knows she is nearing the end of her life, and for whom every day is a mundane struggle, until she spots the handsome young Indian and a spark of life is reignited within her. It’s a great performance by a great actress.

As Abdul, Fazal is given less to work with beyond wide-eyed devotion, and whilst his naiveite is engaging to start with it grates after a while as he never quite seems to wise up to how he’s being perceived by those around him.

Still it’s to both his and Dench’s credit that they form such a convincing relationship, and whilst it might be a very platonic love story, the film very clearly plays like a romance.

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Eddie considered that he was going to have to run a few marathons when the shoot was over!

As the Prince of Wales (Dirty Bertie) Izzard is unrecognisable, having put on the pounds and gained a beard, and he’s very good as the irascible next in line to the throne, balancing comic buffoonery with genuine menace. Bertie isn’t portrayed as a nice man, but it’s to his credit that Izzard wrings every drop of humanity out of him that he can.

As Abdul’s long-suffering friend Mohammed, Akhtar swings between humour and pathos. For long stretches of the film he’s the comic relief, yet eventually he has one of the stand out moments in the film and he plays it perfectly.

In his last screen role Tim Pigott-Smith does a sterling job as the Queen’s put upon Private Secretary, and there’s good work from Michael Gambon as Disraeli, and Olivia Williams and Fenella Woolgar as ladies in waiting. A cameo by Simon Callow as Puccini does seem a step too far however.

Some have seen the film as showing a saccharine version of British Imperialism, but given that practically every white British character other than Victoria is shown to be a snobbish racialist at one point or another this seems unfair. It’s worth noting as well that because the film spends very little time in India we don’t get to see very much of what the Raj was like which is a shame. Still Abdul telling Victoria the history of his country, and by the by mentioning the priceless artefacts that the British Empire stole/smashed in the process, is incredibly poignant.

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Abdul had a sneaking suspicion that Victoria may have lied about her age on her Tinder profile…

Yes, Victoria is portrayed as the only progressive in the British Empire, and yes for all that Abdul is naïve so is she with regard to just what crimes her subjects are perpetrating in her name, but at no point does it seem that all is rosy for the colonial subjects of the Empire.

But whilst it doesn’t completely take a rose-tinted view of Victoria, Abdul and the Empire, one can’t help feeling that the film plays it safe too often, and this applies to both sides of the divide. It would have been nice to hear more about what life was like in a subjugated India, but by the same token there’s potential for an interesting discussion around Muslim attitudes to women that’s never taken. How does Abdul reconcile his love for subservient, burka wearing wife with his affection for the most powerful woman in the world?

Still, the story of a friendship between an old woman and a young man is a breath of fresh air, even before you factor in the fact that one is a Muslim and the other a monarch.

Frears’ direction is assured and the film is sumptuous to look at. It may be light and whimsical at times, and maybe it doesn’t spend quite enough time delving into the darkened corners of the story (was Victoria really that progressive? Was Abdul really that naïve?) but that doesn’t mean it lacks heft when it needs it.

Amusing, well-acted, touching and well-staged this was a far better film than I expected it to be. I don’t expect I’ll rush to watch it again in a hurry, but I still enjoyed it more than many films I’ve seen this year.

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Unlike Vicky here this film didn’t remotely send me to sleep!

Wind River

Posted: September 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

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Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye go undercover!

Whilst out hunting wild animals on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming, tracker Cory Lambert (Renner) discovers the body of an 18 year old Native American girl named Natalie Hanson in the middle of nowhere. She has no shoes and isn’t dressed for winter.

It looks like murder, but because the federal government has jurisdiction over capital crimes committed on reservations, the FBI must send an agent in to confirm this. Rookie agent Jane Banner (Olsen) arrives and, together with Cory and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), she investigates Natalie’s death.

But in the depths of winter, with a powerful storm on the way, the trio soon discover that blizzards and wildcats are not the only dangers that await them on tribal land.

 

In just a few short years former actor Sheridan has emerged as a powerful screenwriting presence. His first script was Sicario, and he followed it up with last year’s underrated Hell or High Water. Now he adds a directorial string to his bow by serving as both writer and director on Wind River.

Though ostensibly thrillers, all three of Sheridan’s scripts could also be rightly described as modern westerns, and all seem to involve a frontier of some kind, and all three harbour a deeper metaphor. In Sicario it was about the war on drugs, in Hell or High Water it was about farmers losing their livelihoods as the banks foreclosed, and now in Wind river it’s tangentially about the treatment of Native Americans, left to wither away on their reservations. It’s a message pushed home with a statement at the end pointing out that Native American women are the only demographic where no statistics are collected regarding disappearances.

It’s sad then that for a film about the marginalisation of Native Americans, the film itself marginalises them, and for the most part they are portrayed as victims. Sure, Cory has a Native American ex-wife and Native American kids, but he isn’t Native American, and neither is Elizabeth Olsen, and however good the film is—and in places it’s very good, in others not so much but more on that in a minute—this fact is pretty inescapable.

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“Seriously, Elizabeth, can’t you put in a good word for me with Disney? Marvel must have some Native American superheroes, right?”

This isn’t to say Native American actors don’t get prominent roles, as the tribal police chief Graham Greene is wonderfully sardonic (but then he’s always great in anything he does) and plays the kind of character you’d happily watch a tv show about, and whilst he isn’t in it much, Gil Birmingham impresses as Natalie’s father Martin, adding depth to what could have been a stock stoic warrior.

If I had one problem with Sicario it’s that the film side-lines it’s female lead in the denouncement so a man can go off and exact vengeance, and Wind River follows a similar pattern. In some ways it’s easier to accept in Wind River because clearly Renner is our point of view character, but it still feels a trifle unfair on Olsen who’s very good, managing to tread a fine line between making her FBI agent competent, whilst highlighting her inexperience. She might not always do the right thing, but she’s not incompetent. Sadly whereas Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario felt well rounded, Olsen never quite escapes primarily being a plot device to allow people to explain how things work in the wilderness/Reservation to. She is a strong character, it’s just a shame she wasn’t given more backstory.

Renner is a better actor than people give him credit for, but at time’s he’s hampered a little by a script that primarily wants him to a stoic frontiersman; a loner prone to staring off wistfully into the wilderness. At times Renner plays this very well, but at others it makes the film drag.

This is a slow burn of a film, and it would be incorrect to think of it as a serpentine mystery. What Sheridan is very good at is taking fairly simple plotlines, but making them more than the sum of their parts. I feel like I need to see it again because the first half is quite slow (but then it took a second viewing of Hell or High Water to truly appreciate that film as well). Sheridan is a decent enough director, and whilst the film drags a little in places, we eventually find ourselves with some great scenes later on. There’s a palpable tension at one point which reminded me of Tarantino at his best, and a fantastic gun battle that might well be one of the more realistic gunfights you’ll see in a movie, and it reminded me of how the Gunfight at the OK Corral is supposed to have gone down.

Sheridan and his cinematographer make full use of the snow-covered mountains and thick forests, emphasising the isolation of such an environment and further playing into the notion of the lone gunman bringing order to the wilderness.

There’s some wonderful dialogue and good performances, and the film has some interesting things to say about masculinity and the emasculation of Native Americans, but it’s slow pace and reliance on a white male hero in a film supposedly about Native Americans and women (plus, it’s fair to warn you, the presence of a graphic rape scene) mean that whilst I liked this, I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

And I can’t shake the feeling that it would have been more interesting if Cory had been played by Gil Birmingham and/or if Jane had been the one to exact finale vengeance, but Sheridan is to be commended for telling simple stories well, and for his 21st Century approach to masculinity, and I remain a big fan of his work.

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“All I’m saying is, maybe you’re a little too obsessed with Braveheart.”

 

Creation Myth

Posted: September 8, 2017 in Free fiction, Published fiction
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Just a very quick post to point out that I’ve had a story published on the Daily Science Fiction website. It’s free to read and very short so why not take a look!  http://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/robots-and-computers/paul-starkey/creation-myth_SF

By Joe Hill

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In the near future mankind is ravaged by a spore known technically as Draco Incendia Trychophyton but more colloquially as Dragonscale, or merely The Scale. Once infected victims display black and gold markings on their skin that look like beautiful tattoos but, sooner or later, the disease causes the victim to spontaneously combust, so as well as death by disease, large scale fires become a fact of life.

School nurse Harper has been infected. She and her husband, Jakob, had discussed what to do if they became infected, and had considered mutual suicide, the trouble is, since that discussion Harper has discovered she’s pregnant, and now she doesn’t want to die, instead she wants to try and bring her baby to term before the Dragonscale gets her, much to Jakob’s chagrin.

Luckily help is at hand from The Fireman, a mysterious stranger who leads Harper to a refuge where a group of the infected have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale. What initially appears to be a paradise might soon descend into something more akin to hell on earth, and Harper and her newfound allies will have to fight many battles, against friend as well as foe, if they’re to survive.

 

Do you watch The Walking Dead? It’s ok if you don’t, this isn’t a mammoth spoiler. Anyway, in the second season of The Walking Dead the survivors chance upon a small farm and stay there…and stay there…and stay there…and, well, not a great deal happens. The Fireman is a bit like season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Hill’s central conceit is a great one. The Dragonscale is a wonderful creation, and the first section of the book where Hill details the spread of the disease and the gradual disintegration of civilisation is wonderfully evocative.

The trouble begins when the Fireman takes Harper to Camp Wyndham (I see what you did there, Joe). Given the size of the book (close to 800 pages) I was expecting some kind of sprawling epic where Harper and the Fireman have to cross a barren wasteland to find safety, and whilst this does happen, eventually, you have to wait until almost the end before this odyssey begins. In the interim what you’re faced with is 300+ pages dedicated to the folk at Camp Wyndham. Suddenly a book about the end of the world turns into something smaller scale, with some of the group eager to implement a cult style leadership.

Now that’s fine, and it isn’t like small groups falling apart isn’t a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre. I mean, Joe’s dad has handled this kind of subject before, in the Stand or Under the Dome, or the novella The Mist.

You might think it unfair to compare a man who’s gone out of his way to escape his father’s shadow with that father, but given this book is so clearly influenced by King’s work, and given in his introduction Joe admits shamelessly stealing his dad’s ideas, I think it’s a fair thing to do (in fact it was only when I read other reviews after finishing the book that I realised just how many Stephen King Easter eggs there are in the book).

The Stand is a similarly doorstep sized hunk of a book, but in that King provides a large cast of characters, both good and bad, and tells the story from multiple viewpoints. By contrast 99.9% of the Fireman is told from Harper’s POV, which means Hill has to pull all kinds of literary contortions in order to keep her in the mix, or have stuff happen off camera. As a result none of the other characters really come alive because we rarely get inside their heads. In particular the Fireman is poorly served, and spends much of the novel off camera, sick or otherwise incapacitated. The reason for this is clear, having given him what are effectively superpowers, Hill has to keep finding ways to keep him out of the picture lest he resolve every problem by throwing some handy fireballs. It might not be so bad, but Harper never really comes alive, but then that’s hardly surprising given her defining character trait is that she’s a huge Mary Poppins fan, and that’s about it. By contrast the Fireman’s defining trait is that he’s British (though he never feels it to this Brit).

So what you’re left with the story of a group of survivors turning on themselves and turning to a crazy religious leader, which is what King did in The Mist, only he did it much better with two thirds of the page count.

Another issue is the Dragonscale itself, and whilst initially Hill keeps it fairly grounded, by the end of the book it’s gone from something that’s at least vaguely plausible, to something completely preposterous that imbues people with magical powers.

The book picks up in the final couple of hundred pages, although even here it lollygags, and more than once I found myself wishing Joe would just get a move on.

A great concept, a strong first act and an ok final act are let down by an overwrought, overlong and over-written middle section, paper thin characters, out of the blue betrayals worthy of a WWE wrester’s heel turn, and fantastical events that break many of the rules Hill laid out initially about the Scale.

I think a decent editor could have lopped half the book and still left something coherent, and probably better. As is this is a fire that burns white hot at first, but which soon fizzles out before sparking into life once more near the end just when you think the embers have finally  gone cold.