The Black Widow

It took it’s own sweet time getting here, but as it turns out, it was well worth the wait. Scarlett Johansson takes Marvel’s eponymous near-superhuman spy around the world for one last outing (after the whole … well, you know … Thanos business).

And it’s one hell of a swan song. The movie takes the Black Widow across the world with the help of a fella who seems to be able to conjure experimental fighter jets out of thin air, but seems to have trouble getting hold of a decent caravan, and the family of Russian agents who’re her family … after a fashion.

The plot is … unsurprisingly unlikely, the characters have just the right amount of depth: enough to keep you rooting for them, but not enough to get in the way slow down the on-screen carnage. The stunts are fantastic, and like all Marvel movies, it doesn’t take itself too seriously (DC, take note). The only cringeworthy bit about it was Ray Winston’s accent, which meandered between Russian Bond villain and Phil Mitchell from Eastenders.

The Black Widow didn’t have that Marvel blockbuster feel to it; felt more like something that could’ve played out on the Disney+ channel over a six-part series. Still, well worth seeing IMO.

The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

This is another one of the those outstanding books that takes a global injustice and condenses it down to lives of a handful of people.

The American Civil War has ended, the Confederacy is in ruins, and the slaves are free. They have no homes, no livelihoods and no land. Worse, they’re now facing the wrath of Southerners who are looking to vent their shame and frustration on the people with less power than themselves … Negroes.

The story is about two brothers: Landry and Prentiss – born into slavery and now emancipated, they leave the plantation they’ve known their whole lives to search for a place of their own and their mother, sold and taken away from them when they were still children.

They don’t get very far; striking an agreement with an elderly landowner – who seems incredibly estranged from his wife, his son, and life in general – to help him to cultivate what little land he has left in return for a fair wage to help carry them further on their journey. As one would expect, the spectre of racism and injustice is never far behind …

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Bear Head by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I think this what you could call a small epic. Pure science-fiction which Tchaikovsky spins a tale around his crossovers: technology, mutant zoology and evolution.

The story takes place on Earth, where a sickeningly unpleasant political demagogue (sounds familiar?) seeks to amass power through the use of cybernetic implants that nullifies free will; and Mars, where a population of genetically workers are building habitats for the first inhabitants of a colony. That would be a story on its own, but when you throw in an AI hive mind and genetically engineered animals with human intelligence, then top it off with Martian worker who finds his brain taken over by the disembodied intelligence of an elderly bear … er what?

Amazingly, it all holds together, though it does move in fits and starts. The prose is workmanlike without too much flair, and the dialogue is top notch (though it could do with a bit of dealing back in places). But once the societal explanations are out of the way, the book motors along, shortening the sentences and the chapters to a gripping climax.

But weirdly, the most fascinating character for me was the demagogue. The author has found something of a muse in the President 45 and presents him in a way that, strangely enough, might explain some of his rather bizarre personality traits. So, the book not only works as a science-fiction action piece, but also as a character study.

So can we add psychology to Tchaikovsky’s heavily strung bow? Maybe. Anyway, it’s a very enjoyable book, perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be, but well worth it for the payoff at the end.