The 100 – darker than I expected

When I was growing up science fiction and fantasy TV was a rare and precious thing. My dad, my brother and I would set time aside for any episode of Doctor Who (old school) or Star Trek (repeats and then the thrill of TNG), because that was what there was. Then came the X-files, Babylon 5, Buffy – suddenly there’d be two speculative shows on TV in the same week, maybe even three. A new dawn of nerdery seemed to be upon us!

These days there are so may science fiction and fantasy shows, and so many ways to consume them, that I have to pick and choose. Something like The 100 can be out there for a year before I even hear of it. Fortunately I heard of it three weeks after Channel 4 started showing it, so laid low by a headache one evening I lay back and caught up on the first three episodes.

It was a pleasant surprise.

Wait, it’s not the 4400 sequel?

Like me, you may be disappointed to discover that The 100 isn’t the post-apocalyptic sequel to flawed but intriguing The 4400. Instead, it’s the story of a bunch of teens dropped into an Earth recovering from nuclear war. Will they be the harbingers of humankind’s return? Or will they all die of radiation poisoning, leaving us to watch twenty episodes of trees, glowing butterflies and rotting corpses?

In case you can’t guess, this trailer explains a little bit more.



It’s clearly a YA drama, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it’s based on a book.

Did they just do what I think they just did?

If you hate dramas about teens then you’re going to hate this. There’s no escaping that. And if you get annoyed at trend-jumping television then you’ll spend the whole time screaming ‘I read The Hunger Games already!’ Honestly, I don’t even know whether I’m going to stick with this one. It has potential to be awesome, or to descend into Lost-meets-the-Vampire-diaries meandering tedium. I have no idea which way it’s going to jump, and that’s part of why I’m still watching.

This show clearly wants to be seen as Lord of the Flies in space. But its commitment to that wavers. There was a shock moment at the end of the first episode that made me grin darkly and rub my hands together as they committed to the concept’s horrifying potential.

Then the second episode pulled back from all of that. Dammit, I thought, they’ve lost it.

Then came the last five minutes of episode three, and another ‘holy cow’ moment that was particularly surprising from American network television (dammit, it’s hard to discuss this without spoiling it).

Based on what’s happened so far I fear bitter disappointment from episode four. But for now at least I’m going to keep watching. Partly because I’m the kind of guy who wants to see Lord of the Flies in space, but more than that, just to see if this show turns into something darkly brilliant or collapses into a compromised mess.

Either way, I’ll get to witness something terrible.

If you’re in the UK you can catch The 100 on 4OD. If you’re elsewhere in the world and have seen it already, does this thing work out?

Gail Carriger’s Curtsies & Conspiracies (& Consequences)

Young adult fiction is a potentially powerful thing. At its best it explores the emergence of adult emotions and a sense of self. It shows characters finding purpose in a world that seemed beyond their control. It’s aimed at an age group who are forming their reading habits for life, and could be forever turned into bibliophiles by the right book.

This doesn’t mean that a YA book needs to be as emotionally draining as The Hunger Games. There’s also a place for a something jollier and more light-hearted, something that lures you round to a serious point through a fun adventure story.

In short, there’s most definitely a place for Curtsies & Conspiracies.

Curtsies & Conspiracies


A splendid sequel

C&C is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about which I enthused in a previous post. These are the stories of Sophronia, a young woman at a unique steampunk finishing school, where she is learning to be a spy. In the background are the machinations of strange factions within Victorian English society, including vampires, werewolves and the mechanically-minded Picklemen. As befits a would-be spy, Sophronia’s life is increasingly tangled in this world of supernatural politics.

All the positive things I said about E&E hold true for C&C. Gail Carriger has a wonderful way of evoking the Victorian upper crust atmosphere. You can hear the collective voice of that era in the way that the characters talk, the things that concern them, the details they notice in the world around them. Class structure matters. Etiquette matters. Dress and appearance matter. These aren’t shallow characters, but they are working within a mental framework that can feel absurdly narrow to a modern reader.

Yet I bought into it. I accepted it on its own terms. I revelled in it, and enjoyed playing along to its own internal logic, where the way a woman faints in can give away her intent, and where a gentleman may be judged by the band around his hat.

Action and reaction

Sophronia continues to be a splendid central character, the sort of skilled and purposefully disobedient role model I like to see. But in this book we start to see that her actions also have consequences, not all of them good.

This is an area that’s tricky in a spy story, where the central skills of the protagonists are lies and deception. Think for a minute about James Bond. Sure, the most recent films have touched on the dark side of the spy game, but on the whole the franchise has skimmed over the fact that he’s doing bad things that could have terrible consequences. If you actually stop and think about Bond’s lifestyle you don’t get the cheesy glamour of Roger Moore, or even the grim sexiness of Daniel Craig – you get the sleazy destructiveness of Archer.

I didn’t really expect the Finishing School books to delve far into the consequences of a career in theft and character assassination, or of the restrictive society in which Sophronia lives. Yet this book is strong on consequences. It lets them creep up on you through the first two thirds, then burst out as the central theme of the final section. I don’t want to give any more away, but I thought that Carriger did a great job of making the world feel more real through exploring this theme, without forever losing the whimsical joy that makes the setting so appealing.

Growing up with your books

It’s become a common feature of YA series for events to grow darker as the character and the readers grow up. Harry Potter’s famous for it, but it’s a theme that stretches back at least as far as C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the children grew too old to return to a magical world.

It’s a pattern that’s good for writers, as they keep the attention of their growing readers. But it’s also a good thing for readers, showing them that life changes, that people change, and that’s not a bad thing, just as they themselves are facing enormous change. It can be supportive and guiding. It shows the power of books.

Gail Carriger is doing that here, and it makes these books all the more admirable. The fact that she does it through a plot that feels more immediate and compelling than the previous book only adds to the pleasure.

More please!

So yes, I enjoyed this book too, more even than its predecessor. It’s fun and whimsical, but with just enough of a serious side to show growth in the series, its plots and its characters. I look forward to reading more of Carriger’s splendid books.

YA – filling a niche

I just finished reading the latest issue of the British Fantasy Society Journal, which was focussed on young adult (YA) literature. YA’s a big thing at the moment, particularly with the prominence of the Twilight and Hunger Games films. The question of YA’s popularity with adults came up several times in the journal’s interviews and articles, and they touched on some interesting causes. But there was one factor that wasn’t mentioned, and it’s the one that most interests me – niche.

Look in the sections of a bookstore aimed at adults and you’ll see a lot of weighty tomes. It they’re not thick with dense, literary prose then they’re physically thick, proper doorstoppers full of action, adventure and/or romance. And there are commercial reasons for this. Both ways, the buyers feel like they’ve got good value for money, whether through challenging art or the sheer volume of pages. The latter tendency has encouraged publishers to turn popular novels into lengthy novels. Particularly in the realm of adventure stories – thrillers, murder mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on – the adult novel has evolved into a bit of a beast. Go back a few decades and you could pick up slim thrillers and sci-fi pulps clocking in around 200 pages. These days they’re likely to be double that.

This change, this slow evolution of the form, has left a niche. Many adults still want something short and accessible, like the old pulp adventure stories. The YA novel neatly fills that gap. It often focusses on adventure and heightened emotion; while not necessarily shallow it is by necessity accessible; and it’s seldom long.

People talk about YA as if it were a recent phenomenon, and as a market in its own right it is. But it seems to me that the role it plays for adult readers is an old one. A gap opened up and YA grew to fill it. If YA hadn’t then something else would have.