Somehow, I have found myself at that time of the year, sitting in front of my computer after a month of eating too much cheese and drinking too much whisky, reflecting on the twelve months that have just gone. That age-old adage the older you get, the faster time goes definitely seems to be taking effect as it seems like only a couple of months ago where I regaled you (or forced upon you!) my ups and downs of the previous year.
As with last year, I will do the same this year – making it somewhat of a tradition if you like – and take the time to remember those famous names whose passing has been a real blow to me personally in the last year. As a big film buff, and a huge fan of the original Alien film as well as his portrayal of Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, I was shocked and saddened by the death of Sir John Hurt. He has been one of my favourite actors for many years, often providing understated brilliance in support roles, in incredible films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Snowpiercer (a very underrated movie), Hellboy, and an extrovertly cunning villain in V for Vendetta. He had starred in every genre imaginable, proving equally successful in every one of them. The film industry will be truly worse off without him. Speaking of Alien, we have lost another of the franchises alumni in Bill Paxton. He may not have been quite as influential or instrumental in the business, but his hyperactive exuberance really elevated fan favourite films such as True Lies, Predator 2, Aliens, and Tombstone. He was one of few actors who can say that he appeared in the triumvirate of influential sci-fi franchises of the 80s/90s, having roles in each of Terminator (as the, ahem, memorable ‘Punk Leader’), Aliens, and Predator 2. And one other actor who, as an avid comic book fan, I will deeply miss, is Adam West. His crazy humour and extremely camp portrayal of the then not-so-dark knight was truly a guilty joy to behold. These are but a few talented actors who we have sadly lost, but they are the ones who struck the strongest chord with me.
As a child of the 90s, I grew up listening to a lot of transitional rock music. It was a decade of development for the genre, and two of my most played bands were Linkin Park and Audioslave (their first album still being one of my favourites of all time). I am sure you can see where this is going…as last year we lost two great singers of our generation. Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. Both were extremely talented, and both coaxed me through my adolescence with their incredible artistry. Their deaths were travesties, and really helped to identify the growing issues surrounding mental health. One thing is for certain, the music scene will not be the same without them.
So now on to my review of the year, and with books being my foremost interest, that is where I will start. In 2016 I decided to delve in to the world of grimdark, experiencing some of the more brutal novels of the last few years. I found in this a somewhat mixed bag of quality and, having my fill of the ostensibly vicious worlds that many authors created, I decided to go for something a bit different in 2017. Fantasy will always be my go to genre. It is what I love. But over the years I seem to have become stuck in my tunnel vision, not willing to look in the periphery outside of the epic subgenre. So last year I decided to give “weird fiction” a go. And I am so glad I did. I am going to be honest, I did not really have an all-encompassing experience of this interesting subgenre as I found that I became too enamoured with the work of a couple of authors.
Firstly, there is Neil Gaiman. I smashed through his back catalogue in absolutely no time. The strongest effort, in my humble opinion, Neverwhere. It was such a brilliant story, full of the most unique characters you could possibly imagine. On the other end of the scale was Stardust. Stardust is by no means a bad book, but it is one that just ambles through the final third with no umph given to the conclusion. Most people will likely be aware of Neil Gaiman after the last year for the Amazon Video iteration of American Gods. A weird TV series that, while meandering more on the side of average, did not do the source material justice. In his American Gods novel, Gaiman gives a unique twist on how we view our most famous pop culture deities, and threads throughout the story some excellent sub plots. Anansi Boys and then Good Omens continued this trend of excellence rife in every one of his novels and I would recommend each and every one of them. I found, as I was reading through them, that these books instilled within me a sense of joy that was greatly missing after reading many of the grimdark novels of the previous year. But it was not within Neil Gaiman’s world that I found my greatest book. I am going to cheat here because I am picking, for my book of the year, a book that was actually written in 2009. However, I cannot convey to you how great the City and the City is. I won’t go in to detail here because I have done so a bit below, and even more in the actual review. All I can really say is that China Mieville’s masterpiece has taken weird fiction to a gritty and even weirder place, encouraging me to read more and more of his work.
I cannot say that I have completely cast off the shackles of epic fantasy that have bound me however, because I have been reading through the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, as well as continuing my journey through the Malazan Empire thanks to Steven Ericksen’s awe inspiring series. Mistborn was very much what I expected. It is a good series, but not fantastic. The idea of metals used for magic is intriguing and, on the whole, works well. But there are times where Brandon Sanderson is to explicit in his description of how they work, often reiterating the same point over and over again until it becomes slightly tedious. Each entry seems to be a recap of how the magic works, and what the characters motives and goals are. The reader is often hand held through the experience, which can sometimes take the edge off the whole story. That being said, the story is intriguing, and there are some genuinely interesting characters and ideas interspersed throughout the three original novels. The Malazan Book of the Fallen still remains on the other side of the spectrum. There is certainly no hand-holding. This is not a series for the uninitiated. If you want to read these books you need to envelop yourself completely in to the lore and embrace the complexity of the stories, the magic, and the vast array of characters. I am five books in to the series and they are, without doubt, five of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. Once I start reading one of these books, I cannot stop. Even five books in, when new major characters are still being introduced, you find yourself enamoured by them just as much as those who you have followed from the beginning. Each character is well developed, carries their own mystery, and demands that you engulf yourself in their very quest. And it is the comedy that flows through, laced subtly through the narrative, neither forced nor distracting. If you haven’t read this series and you are looking for something both challenging and rewarding, then I cannot recommend it enough.
Another big treat of 2017 was to see a new entry in Phillip Pullman’s world of His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage is the first in a new trilogy set before the original novels and drags us back in to Pullman’s world of wonder with ease. It may have been a seventeen year wait for this book to be released, but it was definitely worth it. Characters we know are brought back to us, albeit some are younger and more callous. The ideals are still there, along with the religious context. Even if you have never read the previous trilogy, this book stands alone as a well-written, intriguing novel that should be read by all fantasy enthusiasts.
In spite of having quite an imposing back catalogue of books to read, I took the time last year to re-read the first two books of the Kingkiller Chronicles. I don’t really make a habit of going back to books I have already read because there are just so many out there that deserve my time, but these books are the exception. Both are fantastic and are probably the best written fantasy books, including any of the diverse subgenres out there, of all time. The way Patrick Rothfuss builds his characters, layer upon layer upon layer, is fantastic. His magic system that, at first seems so simple, is deceptively intricate, and there is a lore here that is thick with mystery. Like the rest of Rothfuss’ fans, I am eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Kvothe’s life. While the delay between books maybe as a chasm for all of his fans, I commend Rothfuss’ dedication in not bowing to the pressure. This is a man who wants to do his world and characters justice and if that means we all have to wait another decade before we get the final entry, then I would happily do so. And probably read these books another couple of times as I do so!
Now on to films. If you remember, last year I went in to a bit of a rant about how Warner Bros have absolutely ruined the DCEU from the get go. I am a bit of a comic book fanboy so seeing the mess they made was quite saddening. This year, well they looked as if they were finally pulling it back. Wonder Woman, while in no means perfect, was a good film. The characters were done well, the story was interesting. We’re finally on to something here, I found myself thinking. Oh, how I was wrong. I was very, very wrong. The Justice League. Well that was an utter pile of crap. I have a big issue with the way they have depicted Batman as a bit of a psychopath in this universe, but the forced attempt at humour to dilute the much maligned “gritty tone” of BvS just didn’t work. It was clear from the outset that this was a film made by two completely different directors, with two clashing styles. It was so bad it was jarring. It also had the worst imagined villain in any comic book movie (Malekith, your throne has been usurped). When you consider that next to what the MCU achieved last year, well there is no real comparison. Three excellent films, each better than the last. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol II may not have been quite as good as the original, but it was, at the least, enjoyable throughout. It was great seeing Michael Keaton as a villain in Spiderman: Homecoming, as well as a great adolescent take on Peter Parker, fully equipped with all his trademark one-liners. But, for me, the winner of all the comic book films was Thor Ragnarok. It was hilarious throughout, and brought a new tone to the MCU, showing that they are willing to allow directors present their individuality throughout their films.
But 2017 was not the year where the MCU stood tallest. Instead it was the year where a true classic got a belated sequel that was arguably on par with it in terms of sheer artistry. Blade Runner 2049 was the one film that I was most worried about. That worry was soon disproved as what I found myself watching was one of the most visually striking and emotive films of all time. Denis Villeneuve is fast becoming one of my favourite directors, and he is yet to put a foot wrong. Star Wars the Last Jedi was another big hit for me. It may have proven to be divisive amongst many fans of the franchise, but it was a different take on a franchise that has been criticised for relying too much on familiarity. There were so many shocks throughout, and character development that came way out of left field. Kudos to Rian Johnson for having the testicular fortitude to go against the grain. The biggest surprise of the year for me was Baby Driver. This film oozes style from the first minute to the very last. For a quirky film it has a surprising undercurrent of pure emotion, even amongst the more unsavoury characters who tear up the screen with their violent tendencies. The music, the car chases, the characters. The whole thing has Edgar Wright written right the way through and is definite winner because of it.
Where Marvel has succeeded in the cinema, it has tripped over a fair few hurdles on the small screen in 2017. Let’s start with the Netflix originals. These got off to such a great start in previous years, the second season of Daredevil even took my favourite show of 2016 award. They have not done so well this year. Iron Fist was average. It was brimming with bland characters, a lazy story, shoddy choreography, and a lead character that lacks any sort of charisma. This trend continued on to the Defenders, where a lot of the negative traits from Iron Fist seem to have carried over. At least with the Defenders, though, it had Daredevil and Jessica Jones to add that much needed spark to take my interest above mere apathy. Yet, what it was lacking was a cohesive and intriguing story, and villains that actually elicited any interest from the viewer. The trend did pick up with the Punisher. Jon Bernthal perfectly portrays Frank Castle’s brutal nature, and it carried through its action scenes with as much gravitas as you would expect from source material so brutal. This was Marvels only true shining light on the small screen because we then come on to their biggest travesty; Inhumans. I’m not really sure where to start with this. The whole thing is just laughable. CGI that looks a decade out of date. A boring story. I honestly don’t think there was one redeeming feature.
While the mainstream franchises seemed to be stumbling a bit, there were some gems with the more obscure shows that were popping up. The best example of this was Legion. What an absolutely mind-bending, trippy ride that was, and I mean that in the best possible way. Much of the time I didn’t have a freaking clue what was going on and I loved the show all the more for it. Dan Stevens proved that he can credibly play an off-kilter protagonist with such enthralling charisma that, even when you are in the depths of your confusion, you would not want to stop watching. ‘Weird fiction’ seems to be the buzz words when it comes to rating bating these days. Legion did it very well, mainly because it was the weirdness was not pointless. Preacher did not fair anywhere near as good. Season 1 proved enjoyable enough, but the abhorrent blasphemy of Season 2 was even too much for me, and that comes from someone who is a massive fan of the Life of Brian. There was just too much weirdness without purpose, and it reduced the most charismatic characters to arseholes who could not justify their crappy behaviour. It was not a bad season, but it was not exactly great either. As I have already touched on above, American Gods played with this weirdness as well, and sits neatly in the middle of the road between Legion and Preacher. Let’s be clear though, this is nowhere near as good as the book. It plays fast and loose with a lot of the themes and characters and deviates far too much at some points for no discernible reason. A deviation from the source material can be good at times, but only if it can be justified. In the case of American Gods, these deviations just seemed to be more because they wanted to exacerbate the weirdness of the themes, once again grasping that apparent obsession producers have with the ‘weird fiction’ subgenre that seemed to be the craze last year. At least with American Gods it was interspersed with some great characters and fun moments.
The true joy of the small screen last year was in the underappreciated works that can be found on Netflix. The main one for me is Godless. All I can say about this is wow. I watched the whole series in a weekend. It starts off slow, but at no point is it boring. It is a series that relies on the characters to carry it through an already well-known story. An outlaw changes his ways and abandons the gang that was once his family. It has been done before, but never has it been done with this much style. Jack O’Connell proved himself to be a worthy leading man as he oozes charm and conflict, with a weighty roster of well-developed female characters that easily cast off that notion of the ‘damsel in distress’ cliché. With my next choice, I am a bit late to the party as it has been around for a while, but I have never watched it. Black Mirror is a triumph. I’m not sure how Charlie Brooker’s mind works, but it is quite disturbing and wholly awe-inspiring. The latest season, that was released last year, was exceptionally dark, and often depressing. But you always want to continue watching. The ‘USS Callister’ was the stand out episode for me, where it starts off a little tongue in cheek, before the episode takes a much murkier turn. And then there is ‘Crocodile’, which was hard to watch at times, but also hard to turn away from.
There is one series that (surprisingly) I have not spoken about yet, and that’s Game of Thrones. It was another strong year for the seminal fantasy series, and one that has been as exciting as any yet. I am going to be slightly controversial though. The series was great, but it had its negatives. Like, how fast can people suddenly travel across Westeros these days? A journey that would have lasted a whole season a few years back is now covered in one episode. It is baffling at times and made it all seem just a little bit rushed. Maybe I’m just bitter because I know there is only one season left and felt that maybe they could have taken their time a bit more with it and carried the arc across another year or so. Either way, it was still fantastic. It’s just a shame that not all long-running shows can continue with such a positive trend, as last year was the year that I finally lost interest in the Walking Dead. For me it just started rehashing the same old stories in a slightly different skin, and only tried to make them more interesting by increasing the graphic continent. I’m not a person who likes gore for the shock factor. For me it needs to have a purpose, and the Walking Dead just seems to have lost all of its purpose. There are so many other shows released last year that I could probably go on for another few thousand words, but to save you having to endure that, I will simply post intermittent reviews up in the TV section of the site here (as soon as I get the time!) and you can then pick and choose which shows you would like my more in-depth opinion on. But if you do venture over there, you will have to forgive any rants that I may have sometimes, as I can be known to get carried away when something irks me enough. You’ve been warned.
Finally, I will move on to my last review, and that is of gaming. If you are not a gaming enthusiast and wish to skip to the ‘awards’ section, then feel free to scroll down. I don’t blame you as this is my ultimate geek side peeking out. As with every year there is expected to be an upwards trend in the quality of games, such is the way with the improvement in technology. This year has been no exception. I am a PlayStation 4 owner, so my views will be biased to games that are available on that console, but there have been two clear standouts. The first, and arguably the best of the two, is Nier: Automata. This game struck me on such an emotional level that it is hard to quantify in words. It starts off so simple, in terms of story, but there are layers that just keep chiselling away at your resolve. It may not be a manly thing to admit, but when I got to the end of the game I was close to tears. 40+ hours had worn me down and brought out of me an emotional rawness that I have not felt since the Last of Us. A story, however, is no good if the gameplay is poor. Luckily, the gameplay is exceptional. It dances between hack’n’slash, old school Space Invaders style shooter (but obviously far more advanced), side scrolling platformer. And every style works perfectly. It’s for this reason that Nier: Automata is the game of the year for me. But it beats Horizon: Zero Dawn by barely a hairs width. HZD is the most beautiful game I have ever played. It has an engaging story and gameplay mechanics that are consistently rewarding. Believe me when I say there is great sense of achievement when you finally bring down your first Thunderjaw.
With this upward trend in the quality games there does seem to be an increase in the greed of some publishers. None are more to blame for this than EA whose working practices are absolutely abhorrent. Look at Star Wars Battlefield 2 as your prime example. For a game that costs £50 you would expect to have the full package, but instead they decided to only reward those players who were willing to pay extra to get all the bells and whistles. It is a disgusting practice (known as Loot Boxes and Microtransactions) where a free to play game mentality is transferred to a full priced game. Battlefront 2 is an ok game, but it is crippled by this one mechanic that makes it an absolute chore to play. If Karma will have its way, Disney will revoke EA’s Star Wars licence and give it to a company more deserving (CD Projekt Red, anyone). Well, anyway, that’s my gaming rant over with. I won’t go in to games anymore because, apart from a few other half decent titles, my time has been spent on other things for the majority of the year. But gaming will always be my go to form of catharsis when I need a break from all the hard work, unfortunately just not enough to get its own section on the website; mainly because if I spent any time writing about games as well I’d genuinely have no time to play them!
So, with all that said and done, here are my main recommendations from last year. The best. The worst. And those that came ever so close.
Best Book – The City and the City. This was definitely the best piece of weird fiction I read last year. Now I know it wasn’t released last year, but that shouldn’t stop it from being on this list, if only that it provides me with a chance to draw people’s attention to it. Yes, it is unquestionably weird (hence falling under the category of weird fiction). And yes, it does take a little bit of time to get your head around the concept, but once you have there is a unique and enjoyable story waiting for you. It is full of mystery that can probably be characterized as a complex ‘who-done-it’ on LSD. The story is full of twists that will keep you guessing and I would strongly recommend reading the book before the BBC release their version on the small screen later in the year.
Honourable Mention – La Belle Sauvage. His Dark Materials was a phenomenal series, heavily based in religion, but carrying much of its own individuality. With Phillip Pullman’s first entry in his Book of Dust prequel trilogy he gives us much of the same quality, but with a different take on the story. It is crazy to think it has been seventeen years since the previous series ended, but it was well worth the wait. With La Belle Sauvage, we have been treated to something old-fashioned and comfortable, and we are once again pulled in to Pullman’s world of wonder.
Worst Book – None. I know this is going to seem like an utter cop out, but there were honestly no books that I read last year that are anywhere near worthy of being labelled with such a title. Every book that I read was certainly not worse than good. And when I don’t even have an average book of the year I cannot justify putting one here. Which is good thing!
Best Film – Blade Runner 2049. There was only one winner for me this year. Blade Runner 2049 is just beautiful in both characters and visuals. I won’t go in to too much detail here because I have waxed lyrical in my review, which can be found here. I understand that it is not for everyone, especially as it is quite slow and ponderous at times, but that is why it works so well. This is a thinking person’s sci-fi film, and I think it to be one of the best ever made.
Honorable Mention – Baby Driver. This came as a bit of a shock to me as I truly thought that the Last Jedi, or one of the Marvel films would end up taking this spot (all are great films). But what drew me to this was just how different it was. It is unmistakably an Edgar Wright film. His quirky style is rife through it. It’s also faultless. Funny from the first minutes where you see the charming Baby miming and dancing along to some eclectic choice of music in his car, to the more brutal ending where shit gets very much real. If you want to read my opinions in a bit more detail head over to here, and you can see exactly why this movie is so good.
Worst Film – Geostorm. Uhhhhhh. Yeah. So, Gerard Butler fights a crazy storm. Not literally because that probably would have been entertaining. More so than this tripe anyway. Not even going to waste my time with a review. Just don’t bother.
Best TV Show – Godless. This is a show about characters. It can often seem slow as it cuts them all down, supporting characters included, to the very bone, showing viewers their very essence and soul. There are tender moments rife through the seven episodes, and villains are really brought to the fore in the layers that they are given. It was so easy to become engrossed by a film that is brimming with such natural relationships and odes to nature that I felt the hours fly by as I binge watched this modern masterpiece. The Old West hasn’t been depicted this well since Clint Eastwood’s genre defining Unforgiven, and Godless stands as it’s equal. If you want to read a bit more about it, then please click here, but in this case I would simply just advise that you flick Netflix on, search for Godless, and behold the wonder of this series.
Honorable Mentions – Black Mirror, and Legion. When it came to honorable mentions, I couldn’t’ really split between these two. Black Mirror is such a clever, albeit morbidly dark, show that focusses on the dangers of modern technology and deficits of human character. It is not easy to watch. In fact, sometimes it is downright depressing. But it is worth it just to witness how clever TV can be. There are currently four seasons, and I have grouped them all in one review here, so you can see all the highs of the series (and there aren’t any true lows, with the exception of how depressing it can sometimes be). Legion is also not the easiest show to watch. But by damn it’s a fun ride. In fact, it is absolutely insane, confusing as hell at times, and a visual smack in the face. For all of those reasons, it is pure genius. You can read a bit more about it here.
Worst TV Show – Inhumans. I really hope this isn’t a sign of things to come for Marvel’s small screen efforts because it was just dreadful. They aimed to make it quirky and interesting, which is what something as crazy as the Inhumans should be, but they failed on every level. With actors such as Anson Mount and Iwan Rheon you would think they would be able to add a bit of style to it, but even they are given short shrift. Hopefully they won’t bother with a second season and just cut their losses, but it is shows like this that show the vast difference between the higher powers that run the MCU Movies and their counterparts for the TV Shows. If you are a fan of the MCU, then please don’t bother with this in case it sullies your view of them. I really wish I hadn’t.
Best Game – Nier: Automata. This game is haunting in its beauty. The story is so complex it is like nothing I have encountered before. Characters are built up and then torn apart, piece by piece. The more attention you pay to the small details, the more you are rewarded with true emotional depth, even in the smallest (in one instance, literally) of characters. Everything that happens has a purpose, and every purpose pushes you towards that end game. Oh, and the gameplay is amazing as well. Lots of different styles all rolled in to one. 80s old-school shooter, hack ‘n’ slash, side scrolling platformer, puzzle game. It has so many genres and each of them are handled with the same intense detail. I cannot recommend this game enough.
Honorable Mention – Horizon: Zero Dawn. It was so close between this and Nier for game of the year, but Nier pipped it by the smallest of margins. But that shouldn’t stop you from playing this game because it is truly incredible. This is another story driven game, full of interesting characters and a lot of core lore that is essential to getting the most out of your experience. Horizon is probably the most beautiful game out at the moment, from the exquisite design on each of the machines to the luscious backdrops. The biggest triumph, though, is the combat. Real strategy is needed to take down the largest of the machines, and the accomplishment you feel afterwards is almost euphoric. Another must buy game from 2017.
Worst Game – Star Wars: Battlefront 2. The main reason I have put this as the worst game of the year is because it is a perfect example of the growing greed in the gaming. The game itself is a massive disappointment, but not terrible. What truly makes it egregious is the way that it pushes you to spend more than the standard price in order to progress. That is not an acceptable model. EA have proven that they care nothing for gamers with this release and, if karma has anything to do with it, they will lose their Star Wars license and it will be given to a company far more deserving.