Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Book Review- A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Title:  A Darker Shade of Magic
Author:  V. E. Schwab
Series:   A Darker Shade of Magic #1
Published:   27 February 2015 by Titan
Length:   400 pages
Source: Publisher
Summary : Most people only know one London; but what if there were several? Kell is one of the last Travelers magicians with a rare ability to travel between parallel Londons. There is Grey London, dirty and crowded and without magic, home to the mad king George III. There is Red London, where life and magic are revered. Then, White London, ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. But once upon a time, there was Black London...

Review: Kell is one of the last Antari, a blood magician. As the adopted brother of the prince in Red London, where magic is prized, he hops between the other Londons- White, ruled by a ruthless brother/sister duo, Grey, without magic at all, and occasionally Black, which was wiped out by London, on diplomatic missions. He’s also a smuggler. At some point he meets Lila,  a thief from Grey London, as he’s smuggling artefacts between the worlds. She hopes to be a pirate and adventure, and with Kell she gets more adventure than she’d thought as they try to return an artefact he’s taken.
I wanted to read this because, as you may have noticed, I am a little obsessed with London and its variations. I’ve enjoyed the London based urban-fantasy I’ve read so far, and the idea of four Londons, each very very different, intrigued me. Also, Schwab posted on Goodreads a summary of elements:-magic, cross-dressing thieves, Londons (plural), and a royal who is equal parts Prince Harry and Jack Harkness- which definitely caught my eye.
The characters are fun and fleshed out. I think my favourite was Rhy (the aforementioned royal mashup of Harry and Captain Jack) who starts off providing comedy and then by the end he’s more than that and you just want to hug him. Then come the Dane twins, the cruel rulers of White London, who I loved reading about as they do evil things.  Kell and Lila, I really enjoyed seeing their friendship develop, but I didn’t care for them as much as I did for Rhy, Astrid, and Athos.
The writing was good in places and bad in places. There’s a lot of world building to start with, and partially though the middle. I love how each London is completely different and how each world the London is in is completely different in elements like language, rulers, and general ambiance. While the world building to start is brilliant, it also makes the book slow down, and for me, it never picked up the pace or interest/adrenaline levels,  even with all the plot twists and the fight scenes, which is probably the main reason I didn’t enjoy this as much as I was hoping. It did pick up towards the end though.

Overall:   Strength 3 tea to a historical fantasy novel set across three beautiful worlds but, for me, was let down by the pacing and plot.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Theatre Review: Spring Awakening by Sater and Sheik, performed by Renegade

You know I said at the start of the year that I wanted to do more theatre, and I’d do it with Renegade.... well, I was going to, but then I got a job (which makes my compulsive book buying financially viable!!) but then it meant I couldn’t be in this. I’m glad I got to see it though!

Title:  Spring Awakening
Writer: Stephen Sater and Duncan Sheik, based on work by Frank Wedekind
Director:  Alex Howarth
Performed by: Renegade Theatre Company
Major cast: Tom Noyes, Niven Willett, Alex Brain, Joe Oliver Eason, Mhairi Fairholm, Joe Carter, Hayley White
Seen at: Duke Street Theatre
Other info: I reviewed  Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind, the play that this musical is based on, here.

Review-contains mild spoilers for the twists Renegade put:  Late 1800s Germany.  Schoolboys and girls discover sexuality. It really does not go well. Among other things, Wedla Bergmann does not understand how babies are made, Moritz Stiefl is tormented by erotic dreams, and Melchior Gabor, having read about sex, now believes in nothing. Spring Awakening: A New Musical follows a set of turbulent coming-of-ages, with everyone’s internal monologues making up the songs.
I know Renegade from being ensemble in their last show, Lucky Stiff. As a company, they're wonderful to work with, and I know the production team has changed from Lucky, but I was hopeful that the effort and the uniqueness of  ideas and things put in for Lucky would also be seen here, a show which I already loved.

When you get there, the tone is immediately set by red lighting, the children sitting in pairs with candles in between them, the adults looking on strictly, and church music in the background. The stage is square, there's two rows of seats on each side, and two sides have further seating behind. There's staging areas behind and among the seats too, for a really intimate, immersive experience.
I think my favourite performer was Niven Willett, who poratrays.  Moritz's lost, confused character through every bit of his  body and face and movements. Then there was Alex Brain, who plays Wedla's innocence really well and has a beautiful voice. Tom Noyes plays the self-assured Melchior, well, getting most of the really high notes of Left Behind. Then  there’s the two Joes (Eason and Carter), Hanschen and Ernst. Eason's ease of being and casualness  as Hanschen... brilliant, in both My Junk and the seduction scene (with a brilliant use of strawberries), And then Hayley White, Martha, whose crying at the funeral nearly got me goin. And then Tanita Gold, Dominique Hamilton, and Zac Abbott who doubled as all the adults, each taking on very different personas as they played different people.
To be honest, all the cast was brilliant, both as their own characters, and as an ensemble. Director Alex Howarth made really good use of  all the cast, who, if they weren't in the scene, were probably hovering on the edges, watching and reacting. The group dances were sharp and on point, and so was the singing.

The music was a bit different to the version I'm used to from the soundtrack. They use acoustic guitars instead of electrics, and the backing in places is more gentle and allows for the vocal harmonies to come out a lot more. I loved Melchior's backing in Whispering, traditionally Wedla's solo. Also, love to the actors playing guitars and accordions on stage as part of the show. The only thing I didn't like was the oddly upbeat string music in the scene change just before Wedla dies in agony. Considering most of the themes had been played pretty straight, the one subversion felt really out of place.
The setting and lighting was really good. They use not just normal stage lighting, but also candles and torches and handheld lights to draw attention to things. The permanent set was ladders at each corner of the  stage, plus the levels afforded by the seating, and chairs suspended from the ceiling.   Movable ladders and chairs were also used really well, and so was the piano, being brought in for the haystack scene. The scene changes were really quick, being fully incorporated into the action most of the time, and leaving no time for applause in between each song.
The more adult themes are handled well. The abuse and the suicide were stylised, and Wedla's death was played wonderfully. The haystack scene was surprisingly consensual. There's a lot of violence played really roughly, making the anger in those scenes seem real.

The little touches really made it. The boys in the classroom writing the Aeneid at speeds fitting for their characters. The fact that Martha, who had said she was in love with Moritz, was the one who cried most at his funeral. Moritz's scarf. The whole metaphor of ballet shoes vs. combat boots, showing Wedla as ultimately still a child when she dies. The Those You've Known scene, when it seems that Ilse died as well (and then she's playing pirates with Moritz and it's heartbreakingly beautiful).

There's many powerful moments in the show, which Renegade did wonderfully, but I really have to highlight The Dark I Know Well. It's one of my favourite songs, and I'm so happy with how it was done here. You see, the versions I've watched online have been haunting, tragic, profound. The one I saw here was fucking terrifying. The actors on all sides acting out punches and defences. The looks of menace on everyone's faces. The boys crowding in around Martha and Ilse, as they try and hold on to each other in desperation. The lighting showing Martha and Ilse’s faces, but everyone else as less actors, more shadow. Everything about that scene...I'm sorry, I could go on forever about how brilliant that was. 

Overall:  Strength 5 tea to a powerful, intense show that got the Renegade Treatment and was definitely made better for it. So much love goes to all the cast and crew.

Links: Company