Sunday, 31 July 2011

Book Review: El Sombra by Al Ewing


El Sombra is set in the same alternate steampunk world as Jonathan Green’s Ulysses Quicksilver books, however, it has a very different feel to it. Using a movie analogy, if Green’s books share something in common with Hammer Horror gothic style movies, then Al Ewing’s entry into the Pax Britannia series feels more like a Quentin Tarantino film. El Sombra is hard, brutal, dirty and often downright mean!

Set in a small Mexican village that is overrun by a Nazi invasion force. The story revolves around the psychological experiment that the Nazis are conducting in the town, which has been turned into a labour camp, and the endeavours of a lone freedom fighter who singlehandedly stands up against them.

The story reads like a Zorro adventure, with the lone vigilante, El Sombre, going up against the all powerful overlords. Initially with minor encounters with the odd guard here and there, but very soon escalating to an all out (one man) war with all of the German forces in the area.

It goes through the standard ups and downs that are typically found in this type of story. Initial victories, and then, inevitably, El Sombre is captured and tortured. The torture sequences that are scattered throughout the book verge on torture porn, being exceedingly explicit and also fairly sanguine!  El Sombre’s escape from captivity and subsequent battles are handled quite stylishly, although his near superhuman acrobatics are sometimes a little hard to believe.

Ewing’s writing style generally carries the story along at a nice fast pace, and doesn’t really drag at any point. However, he does have a habit of giving each Nazi encountered by El Sombre a deep and often twisted back story, that to be honest is near to pointless. Some of these pieces stretch on for a page or two and you know that at the end El Sombre is going to despatch them without batting an eyelid. Although some of these back stories are quite entertaining, they are far too regular and go on far too long, especially when they occur right in the middle of a fight scene!

So, generally another good read. El Sombre is very different in style to Ewing’s running mate in the Pax Britannia series, which may catch some readers off guard, however, on it’s own merits an interesting steampunk novel, with some large Weird War Two input as well. Certainly worth a read.

As has become familiar with the Pax Britannia books, the book doesn’t finish at the end of Ewing’s novel. Tucked in after the novel is another 50 page Ulysses Quicksilver novelette from Jonathan Green, Fruiting Bodies. This is another excellent read, with Ulysses taking on a strange case in the dark and twisted streets of Green’s steampunk London. This time encountering a series of bodies that have been infected by a virulent and very deadly fungus. The plot soon thickens and builds to the inevitably heart stopping finale!   There are overtones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers about it, but with a very steampunk vibe as well.

So, all in all, El Sombre is another excellent addition to the Pax Britannia series. The novel is certainly different in feel to Green’s books, but it is still an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading Al Ewing’s second book in the series, Gods of Manhattan. Look out for a review of that one in a few weeks time.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Banff Medieval Festival - Schiltron Demostration

Practicing a Schiltron

Over the weekend we took a trip up to Banff, around an hour north of Aberdeen, we’d been up to Macduff Marine Aquarium on the previous weekend (well worth a visit if your in the North East of Scotland), and seen a couple of posters advertising Banff Medieval Festival. I have never been to a re-enactment before so I was interested to see what it was all about.

Banff Castle is basically a smallish stately home (certainly not what I would consider a castle), the grounds are not large either, so I new this was not going to be on the scale of some of the American Renaissance Fayres, or even some of the bigger events put on across the UK. The event was put on by The Historic Saltire Society, and even with such a small event, they put on a really interesting show.

As it was there were around a dozen tents, the the occupants of each showing off various things from calligraphy, weaving and butter churning to smithing arrowheads, making armour and even demonstrating a few musical instruments.

My son tries his hand at butter churning! 

Both my sons were showing a severe lack of interest in any of this until the older one was handed a falchion and then given a two handed sword to try out!


Now that his interest was rising we awaited a display of the Schiltron (Scheltrum…), which turned out to be a well rehearsed demonstration, that not only educated everyone about this fighting formation, but was also very entertaining.

I recorded most of the demonstration with my compact camera. It was a very cold and windy July day, so excuse the poor sound quality. I think anyone interested in the workings of the medieval battlefield will find it worthwhile watching all the way through…

Part one explains the basics of the formation.

Part two demonstrates a schiltron repelling an attack.

Unfortunately, as it was such a cold day, we were reluctant to hang around for some of the other demonstrations. If we see more of these events coming along, I think we will certainly make an effort to attend them, in future.

Friday, 15 July 2011

History, the Future and where I am going...

I am just back from my summer trip south, taking my wife and sons to visit the rest of the family (which accounts for my lack of posting for the last couple of weeks).
I am back, revitalised and raring to go. I have plenty of half finished projects that I am now keen to bring to fruition, and also so plans for other projects that I think might be of interest to some of my readers.

However, I have also spent a little time reviewing the direction of the blog and how the content has been received. There has been a steady rise in visitor stats for the blog over the past year, thank you all for that, page loads for May 2011 reached nearly 13000, more that double the previous months total, and although they have tailed off a little since then, it has greatly energised my interest in maintaining the blog.

I have spent quite some time looking over the stats to understand what makes a popular post and then also trying to relate that to my aims for future posts and for my target audience (primarily sci-fi wargamers). The most popular posts on the blog in general seem to be the film and TV reviews( Sanctuary, the Conan movies, The Lost Future etc.). These seem to attract the most random hits from search engines, but I fear that they don't generate many returning visits. (i.e. people searching for reviews of The Lost Future). A lot of these page loads also come in the form of Google Image searches, and are clearly just people looking for photos of their favourite movie stars, I have no problem with that (I put the photos in mainly to attract new visitors), but it doesn't really help the blogs regular readership to grow, as most of these hits don't even load the actual blog pages, just the image they are searching for. While I enjoy writing these "media" articles, and I hope some of my regular readership gets something out of them, I don't know if they are growing the blog in the audience genres that I really want it to grow.

It doesn't take much to work out why these pictures are popular, but it is a shame that they don't attract more returning visitors.

After the "media" based blog posts, the next most popular posts seem to be the tutorials and information based items on model making and figure sculpting. In particular the laser cutting articles have generated quite a bit of interest. This is the area that I am most happy with. From the statistical results it shows that I have struck a cord with most of those articles and therefore I am happy to continue with more of the same.

Beyond that, I am still planning on running the usual mix of occasional book reviews, figure reviews, wargaming articles and artwork postings. Over the past couple of months I was regularly posting under the "Eye Candy" name, artwork, sculptures and pulp covers. I felt that the three-a-week schedule, although attracting some comments and reasonable traffic, got a little opressive. So although I will continue to post "Eye Candy", they will be a little more random. It wont be three-times-a-week, it may not even be once-a-week. It will more likely simply be when I find something I really feel deserves a wider audience.

This one is obvious Eye Candy!
If anyone has any suggestions on the direction I could take with the blog, or indeed any comments on what they like or dislike about what has come before, that would be greatly appreciated!
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