Seasons of War – ed. by Declan May

23382352An unofficial Doctor Who charity anthology focused on John Hurt’s War Doctor, Seasons of War presents a pleasingly engorged table of contents featuring stories from a mix of writers both known and lesser-known. I’ve been watching the project unfold for quite a while now, and was waiting for the (now delayed) paperback release to read the book until I eventually caved and bought the ebook (which you can do for whatever price you choose to pay here, going directly to charity.)

It opens, in pleasingly timey-wimey fashion, with the Epilogue – Warsmiths (by Matt Fitton). It reminded me fleetingly of the opening to Obverse’s City of the Saved Sherlock anthology, with a bleak, iconic image setting the tone for the rest of the stories to follow and, just a little bit, taking a hammer to what we might expect a Doctor story to be like.

It’s followed by I. Karn (Declan May) which does a stand-up job of handling continuity (it follows the short Night of the Doctor) and taking a further crow-bar to our image of the Doctor. Here is shown immediately forgetting the name of a dead woman and unremorsefully refusing to save an entire race. There’s setting out your stall, and then there’s this story.

By contrast, Crowsnest Past (Warren Frey) takes an abrupt detour from the grimy opening, launching the Doctor into a pretty standard Doctor story, complete with information-eating monsters and spur-of-the-moment plan. It’s pretty decent, though feels like a bit of a u-turn from the opening pages that have been so adamant about de-heroing the Doctor in this particular guise. If anything, this feels like an Eleventh Doctor story–although that doesn’t necessarily detract.

It’s followed by one of my favourite of the collection, Eight Minute War (Lee Rawlings), which tells the tale of an (unsuccesful) battle from the point of view of a footsoldier in the Doctor’s army. The minutiae of the alien worlds of Doctor Who has always been more interesting than the huge battles, and this story succeeds in the same way, showing the war-time cameraderie of training and preparation, before blasting everything apart in the final pages as the mission fails, to no concern of the Doctor. This Time War is shaping up to be truly horrific.

The Mind Robber (J.R. Southall) is another Land of Fiction story which — although functional — doesn’t manage to be as meta or clever as Land of Fiction-style stories deserve. It’s solid, and includes some powerful imagery, but I was still left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Following this, the first of the flash-fiction pieces that pepper the anthology, from the pen of the editor himself, throws together the War Doctor (here known as the Man in the Bandolier) with another Time Lord, the Corsair. These segments shine as small flashes of story that can revel in atmosphere and pathos without an overburdened need for plot mechanics, and this one is brilliant: the story of the Corsairs TARDIS in particular is a beautiful flight of fancy.

The Ambassador of Wolf-Rayer 134 (Kate Orman) is likewise a great piece, although I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Orman. Moffat really needs to just hire her to write an episode already. It’s followed by The Amber Room (Simon Brett and John Davies) in which a time-displaced soldier is rescued from dinosaurs by the Doctor, only to discover the Earth has vanished. I’m not the first review to point out that the soldier is absurdly accepting of all the information thrown his way (although maybe a dinosaur will do that to you) but sometimes that’s the cost in a short story of getting-the-hell-on-with-it, and this is an entertaining and adeptly-paced story.

The Celephas Gift (Andrew Smith) is probably the lengthiest piece in the anthology, which is by no means a bad thing. It has the feeling of pure vintage Doctor Who, richly textured with a neat hook to it, and manages what action-based short stories rarely achieve: the feeling of a satisfying finale.

Up next is a further Declan May flash fiction piece, The Girl With The Purple Hair I which introduces companion-for-the-book Jenny Shirt. Given how hard it is to pull together a likeable companion (I might controversially argue that RTD never managed it in an entire series with Martha) it’s pretty impressive to do so quite so successful in under two pages. Jenny Shirt forever.

It’s followed by a section of Henry V reworked by Matthew Sweet to be about the Doctor. Other reviews have not been kind to this, which is a bit unfair. It’s clever, it’s got a whole bunch of in-jokes I had to look up to understand, and even if it is a bit ephemeral amongst all the other stories here, at least its erudite ephemera.

Next up is Here Comes The Doctor by Christopher Bryant, in which the Doctor infiltrates a war hospital. The first half is a superb spiral of imagination; the opening descriptions of the hospital are some of the most evocative world-building in the collection, and if the ending (they’re really Dalek’s and they were evil all along!) is slightly less exhilarating in comparison, its partly due to the strength of the opening and partly because this particular twist occurs tangentially quite a number of times throughout the other stories – such as, sort of, in the next, Your Move (John Peel). Telling the tale of a strike against the War Computer in the company of a sure-to-be-a-villain robot, the sure-to-be-a-villain was in fact a villain. Predictable but fun.

Sonnet by Jenny Colgan does what it says on the tin; it’s brief, but packs a punch, with Shakespeare relating his view of the Doctor and his adventures. Somebody please release an anthology of Doctor Who poetry, please?

After a string of stories against an ever-encroaching backdrop of war, Disjecta Membra (Elton Townend-Jones) is something of a breather. It’s dressed up in the gloomy horror vestments, and the traditional Doctor Who reveal of ‘barely explained science was responsible for the supernatural whatnots all along’ does nothing to diminish the power of the imagery that this story employs. (Hands, cups, mirrors–that’s all I’ll say.)

IV. Loop is another of May’s short entries. In some ways this feels like a missing scene from the 50th Anniversary (actually–that’s a touch unfair, as May handles this with more subtlety and mordancy than Moffat ever would) in which a young War Doctor meets the War Doctor who is about to steal the Moment. (It’s also worth applauding that fact that none of the above is explicitly spelled out, which makes the story all the more rich.)

The Holdover (Daniel Wealands) takes the Doctor to an internment camp for refugees. Unfortunately, I found this story to be one of the few mis-fires of the anthology–rather laboured and a bit awkward in style. Thankfully, the next story, Climbing The Mountain (Lance Parkin), is an antidote. Although slight of plot, it revolves around a neat twist that, for all it might seem quite light, in some ways says more about the necessities of war than any number of annihilated planets.

The Garden (Sami Kelish) is, quite frankly, sublime (and definitely in my top three stories of the collection). Delicate and infused with pathos, it tells the story of an old woman on Gallifrey who is so absorbed by the caretaking of her garden in which all the flora of Gallifrey reside that she hasn’t even noticed there’s a Time War going on. The ending in particular is elegant and sad. Stunning story.

Sleepwalking To Paradise (Dan Barrett) chucks us straight back into the war, with no respite. This one’s all story powering forward, replete with a number of smart twists and a lucid, engaging style. It’s followed by Guerre (Alan P. Jack and Declan May), which plants the War Doctor in World War I. It’s a horror-ish tale that pairs brevity with power, relying on the innate pathos of it’s setting to add shades to the War Doctor’s character.

Then The Girl With The Purple Hair is back, continuing the sterling work of her previous introduction. It’s followed by V. Lady Leela, also by Declan May, which tells us what Leela gets up to in the Time War. It rings completely true, further demonstrating May’s capabilities of handling character.

Making Endings by Nick Mellish is another stand-out piece, although to describe to much about it would perhaps ruin it. (It put me in mind of both Patrick Ness’ More Than This and an episode of Black Mirror.) Smart and entertaining.

The Book of Dead Time (David Carrington) is especially memorable for one very specific reason: the library in a tree. Frankly, its unforgivable that I don’t own one. (If you want me to, y’know, review the story: the rest of it matches up to it’s core fantastical image. This feels like the story Neil Gaiman might have written had he been persuaded to write for Seasons of War.)

Driftwood by Simon Brett is another Dalek story, although it is my favourite here. There’s layers of reference and literary shadings that accompany this, but on the surface it’s about Azrael, a wounded Dalek that, amongst other things, now appreciates tea. Lyrical, with a great twist.

The Ingenious Gentleman (Alan Ronald) is a completely left-field oddity amongst the other stories here, although certainly memorable for that. Joining the ranks of fictional characters whom the Doctor has encountered is Don Quixote. The story is giddy and funny, but still turns on the implicit parallels between the two old men no fool’s quests.

Like any self-respecting season of Doctor Who, there’s got to be a returning companion, and in this case it’s the Brigadier in Matt Barber’s Fall. It’s hard to know what to say about this one–as a story it is, just, functional, but the fun resides in the absurdities of a nursing-home bound Brigadier rallying his geriatric army. It has its moments, but it’s really all about having fun with the Brigadier and nothing else. (Which is, of course, no bad thing…)

Always Face The Curtain With A Bow (Jon Arnold) is another oddity of the collection, but in truly spectacular form. Trapped in a time-looped prison in which another Time Lord is forced to kill him every day, this is a nasty, inventive and endlessly ingenious story. Brilliant.

Help A Stranded Time Traveller (Matthew Sylvester) is a straight-up adventure story, short, to the point and coarse (in the best way possible.) It’s followed by Storage Wars (Paul Driscoll) in a pop-culture collision that absolutely should not work but completely does. Some of the prose clumsiness is completely forgiven for the ability to turn the flippant nature of reality television into something with real heart and power at the reveal of the story. (That said, although it ends with the War Doctor releasing the butterflies into the world, were we at liberty to tinker more with canon, I’d love to see that moment given to Capaldi’s Doctor as he searches for his lost home of Gallifrey.)

The Postman (John Davies) feels like a quirky French film (sorta Amelie-Kafka) portraying the various regenerations of the man whose job it is to write condolence letters to the millions dead in the Time War. The initial jolliness is a feint though: the conclusion of the story sucker-punches you into complete blackness, as the Postman delivers the news to parents before being dispatched to the battlefield in which the soldier actually dies. Timey-wimey, in the grimmest way possible.

The Thief of All Ways (Elliot Thorpe) ups the grim quotient, with the Doctor unheedingly sacrificing lives to power a weapon. This is a good story, but actually feels like it’s from an entirely different world retrofitted to star the Doctor–it’s a touch ill-fitting.

Paul Driscoll returns with a second story, The Time Lord Who Came To Tea, which again delights in the small details to paint a picture of the trickle-down effects of war on a remote homestead. There’s a whole bunch of little things that shine here, but its the Dalek Meat Traders that stick in the mind.

The Nightmare Child is another shorter piece from Declan May, proving once again that he knows his way around the English language. This piece is a gleaming assemblage of wordplay that does wonders with atmosphere.

Meals on Wheels (Paul Magrs) returns us to the every-day world, in which Jackie Tyler runs into Davros who, in this instance, is a senile old man dreaming of the Nightmare Child from his tatty tower block bedroom. In an anthology so taken with war on an interplanetary scale, Magrs’ knack of focusing on the everyday might have been out-of-place, but this story works superbly amongst the run-down.

It’s followed by the comic-book entry into the story, Time Enough For War (Simon Brett and Jim Mortimore) which I’m a little at a loss to describe. The art is superb, richly detailed and evocative, but I was at a bit of a loss to descrie what the hell was actually going on. For all that, I found I quite liked it. Just don’t ask me what it was about.

And alas, poor Jenny Shirt — she had to go. We knew her fate was sealed. Barnaby Eaton-Jones does the dirty work in Doctor Death. Given the appearance of a cloaked and scythed Death, I kept dimly expecting a Pratchett-esque quip from the Reaper, but is actually about the metaphorical implications and not at all about jokes in small caps.

The Beach (Gary Russell) is a last-hurrah straight-up Doctor story, returning us to the familiar caring Doctor, perhaps as a reminder that, despite what you might think at this point, he isn’t all bad. It’s cute, which is exactly the right note to strike at this point.

The Moments In Between returns George Mann to the War Doctor and his companion Cinder and this is a wonderful final grace note to the multi-shaded Doctor on display here, playing like a stolen moments from Engines of War. And then finally the whole piece is rounded off with another brisk gallop through the fields of language from May in his Prologue, revealing the ultimate cost to the Doctor of saving the Earth (and patching up some canon holes too, kind of.)

Which brings to me to a summary, which seems a bit of a tall order after such an extended run of stories. Frankly, the anthology is an incredible achievement; to bring together so many voices into a cohesive, balanced and above all just-plain-good anthology of this length (all for charity, I might add, so without the benefit of a pay-check to spur the poor writers on) is miraculous. In the entire run-down there were perhaps only a small handful of stories that didn’t chime with me, which given that I somewhat predisposed against grim war stories is even more of an achievement.

So, all in all, highly recommended. Especially as (have I mentioned?) it’s for charity. I await Seasons of War 2.

Half Sick of Shadows – David Logan

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If ever any book was badly represented by preconceptions, its Half Sick of Shadows. It won the Terry Pratchett Prize alongside Apocalypse Cow and was presented as a time-travel tale. Readers (and that would appear to be all bloggers who have reviewed this book) seem to have been expecting a Pratchett-esque romp through time paradoxes–perhaps Night Watch, set in Ireland.

Up-front then: this book is nothing at all like that.

Instead, the closest analogy for Half Sick I can come up with is The Cement Garden rewritten by League of Gentleman. Edward, the protagonist, grows up on a crumbling ‘manse’ with his god-fearing father, absent older brother, attached-at-the-hip twin and gentle mother. The novel opens as something of a blackly funny coming-of-age novel presented as an off-kilter Gothic fable, as the young Edward unfolds the grim details of his life in an entertainingly matter-of-fact manner. A third of the way into the book, he is sent off to boarding school, where the novel rapidly accelerates to its peak. The school section is both highly entertaining and cutting, and despite what other reviewers have suggested, Logan handles the time compression required to age his protagonist from 5 to 17 both subtly and imperceptibly (and along the way there’s a dizzyingly brilliant scene in which Edward and his friend Alf Lord – key to the novel but barely present – get drunk at an Irish pub quiz that doesn’t seem to quite exist in the right time and space dimension.)

Immediately after, the novel takes a diversion into both the tragic and the absurd, but unfortunately only one of these is a good thing. Returning home, it becomes clear how far away Edward has grown from his twin, who is tied to her home by the weight of a childhood promise to an abusive father and shrunken into the gloom of filth of her own surroundings. This is chillingly sad, and handled beautifully by the author, but unfortunately at the same time the time-travel trappings that have thus-far only faintly whispered below the narrative come into play, and they make not a blind bit of sense. The finale is ham-fisted and rushed, and sadly ruins what until then had been a flawed but intriguing piece of fiction.

It’s quite hard to pin down how I feel about the novel upon closing the last page. Until a third in I was only mildly absorbed by the book, and by the end I felt it had squandered much of its atmosphere and weight on an incomprehensible ending. In fact, its 300 pages feel like something that would have worked stupendously well as a novella in which the need for the narrative to be pulled together at the end could have been avoided and instead we could have simply feasted on the smartly-rendered atmosphere of the whole thing. That said, to all the reviews I’ve come across that have damned this book for not being Terry Pratchett: measuring a book against what you thought it would is a shortcut to disappointment, every time.

Newbury and Hobbes 1: The Affinity Bridge – George Mann

61cJa6S4iIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Steampunk detectives knocking around in London pea-soupers solving potentially supernatural mysteries? Why the hell have I not got around to reading these before?

Clearly the omnipotent Book Pot agreed with me, for just as I had resolved to read the first Newbury and Hobbes mystery as my ‘free choice’ book, it spat out The Affinity Bridge as my next ‘dictated choice’. And so I devoured it in roughly two days.

Let’s be honest: I was very unlikely not to enjoy this book, playing as it does to all my favourite genre touchstones. That said, given my yen for steampunk detectivising, it would have been easy for it have turned out to be a let-down, but thankfully it was no such thing: appropriately atmospheric (the evocation of a smog-shrouded and slightly grimy London is evoked better than a number of other similar works I’ve read) with a mystery the right side of convoluted that — miraculously, because I always find this to a huge flaw with detective novels — arrives at its conclusion without having either telegraphed the solution nor arrived so out of the blue that it’s would have been frustratingly impossible to work it out for myself.

As for Newbury and Hobbes themselves–they’re an interesting pair, if slightly at the whim of the narrative in this novel, though I suspect with a clutch of future books continuing their story there’s plenty of room to explore them further as characters. For the most part, the more fantastical elements of the steampunk world creep in around the edges of the narrative without over-egging it with a parade of the genre tropes, but there’s more than enough to keep the world interesting–the mechanically-augmented Queen Victoria being the memorable highlight.

So all round a solid, entertaining read and (crucially, I suspect) more than enough that I nipped straight onto the tinterwebs and ordered the rest of the series, which I aim to read very shortly (if the Book Pot doesn’t intervene first.)

Trigger Warning – Neil Gaiman

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I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan, in case its escaped anyone’s notice. With the exception of Anansi Boys I think all his novels are superb (and Ocean at the End of the Lane was one of my favourites of 2013.) Accordingly, I was quite excited when Trigger Warning popped up on the shelves without my having remembered it was being released, and I sped through it in a few days.

I’ll start gently: the highlights.

A Lunar Labyrinth is an illusory, elegant story told beautifully; The Thing About Cassandra is a deft little story about an imaginary girlfriend who appears to have forgotten how to be imaginary which is thoroughly entertaining and oddly poignant; The Case of Death and Honey is Gaiman’s second Sherlock Holmes story which is well-characterised and an absorbing version of what the winter years of Holmes might have been like; Click-Clack The Rattle-Bag is, in short, creepy as fuck; An Invocation of Incuriosity is a great sci-fi story, Nothing O’Clock is a perfect fusion of the twin styles of Gaiman and Doctor Who, and finally, Black Dog is a return to the Shadow from American Gods which is a nasty little horror story that’s the finest of the collection.

For all that I’ve picked out seven highlights, I’m hard pressed to say much else positive about this collection though. Love Gaiman as I do, the rest of the stories and poems feel rather fragmentary and lacklustre; or in fact, practised. The collection feels a bit like Gaiman’s got quite good at doing Gaiman, and whilst it might not always be easy to find an obvious flaw with a story, the whole book as a collection doesn’t strike home like his previous two did. And I have a sneaking suspicion that another author with less fame and sales reliability might have had the collection a little more rigorously edited. It might be personal taste however; the two ‘headline’ stories in the book, The Truth Is A Cave On A Dark Mountain and The Sleeper and the Spindle, both of which are universally acclaimed and exist in individual editions, I completely failed to find engaging in any way. I still think the man’s brilliant though; if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t find Trigger Warning quite such a disappointment.

Beautiful People – Simon Doonan

51Ag2ll5v4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a huge fan – one of the early tumthumpers shouting about how people must watch this show immediately – of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful People TV series. Partly because, in my university-halls days, I was equally obsessed with anything in which Simon Barnett was a little bit fey (everything he’s in) and The Feeling (who provide the theme song.)

Somewhere in the years after I bought a copy of the memoirs on which the series is based. I actually can’t remember where, but the second Book Pot decree of the year forced it back into my hands from the dusty corner of the shelf where it skulked.

First off, as I’m sure most reviews say, this bears little resemblance to the series. For a start, its two decades later, which might not matter were both works not richly drenched in the eras they portray. The vague make-up of the characters is intact, although the ‘real’ people of the memoir are handled with altogether more shades of grey than their primary-coloured TV counterparts (except, oddly, Simon himself, who seems to have been toned down from the screaming proto-queen of the book.)

What it does have is the same sense of anarchic camp, and in that sense Jonathan Harvey’s adaptation is absolutely on the nose. Some of the finest moments of the book make it intact to the screen, but by way of review, I offer my four highlights of ‘unseen’ story:

1. In which Simon believes he has murdered his blind aunt by walking her into a lamp-post.

2. In which Simon and his best friend fetch up in a hovel in London in search of the beautiful people, only to encounter a ragtag assemblage of oddities who have no idea what to do with a floor pillow (but know exactly what to do with an upright piano).

3. In which Simon discovers the meaning of camp at Butlins.

4. In which Simon takes an unexpected detour to the Rembrandt on Canal Street and discovers the age-old tradition of ‘mother-‘ and ‘daughter-ing’.

Great stuff. Read it, especially if you love the show.

Cover Design: Mrs Danby and Company – Paul Magrs

I’m very excited to finally be able to reveal a project I’ve been working on – the cover and interior design for Mrs Danby and Company. If you have even a passing acquaintance with my reading habits, you’ll know much I love his Brenda and Effie series, and so I was delighted to be involved with this. Mrs Danby and Company is a bonkers steampunk epic that takes in underwater kingdoms in the Atlantic, New York, Mars and the lair of giant spiders, featuring some what-do-you-mean-copyright pastiches of familiar figures from the annals of classic fiction – and a fair few from the extended universe of Mr Magrs too.

Artwork below!

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City of the Saved: Tales of the Great Detectives (Obverse Books)

totgd-completeI’ve read alot of Sherlock Holmes anthologies, but never one quite like this. If you haven’t come across City of the Saved before (I hadn’t, and it doesn’t matter) it’s effectively the city at the end of the universe in which everyone in history, living, dead or fictional, have been resurrected. In Tales of the Great Detectives, that means that all the endless iterations of Holmes and Watson have banded together to form the Agency, and this anthology details the investigations of a disparate bunch of pairings which is – like I said – the kind of Holmes and Watson’s you’ve never read before. [Warning – this review contains major spoilers. Sorry.]

It opens with a brief introductory piece by editor Philip Purser-Hallard, Saqqaf, and later is closed by its companion piece, Sussex – both atmospheric, illusory fragments that sets the tone for the rest of the anthology. The second story, Young Sherlock Holmes and the Mansion of Doom by Stephen Marley is a superb cold open; starting off like a stock Holmes story so precise in its execution that I utterly failed to see the turning point in which my mounting list of criticisms (cliched story, ‘young’ characters that sound old, illogical deductions…) were suddenly revealed to be deliberate and the story slowly lets you figure out that this is a fictional Holmes in a fictional computer game which is just plain bonkers but just plain brilliant.

It’s a clever start to the anthology because it weans you so neatly from straightforward-Sherlock into the genre-mashed, self-aware archness of the rest of the stories. The second story notches it further: in Eliminating the Impossible by Jess Faraday, Holmes is being stalked by a grim-looking man he believes to be his Creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, a man who in turn believes he is being stalked by Holmes’s. If you like your ontological arguments packaged as Arthur Conan Doyle attempting to assassinate Sherlock Holmes, this is the one for you. (It also has a particularly bone-chilling final image mirroring, I realise as I write this, a cosmic Reichenbach Falls.)

Next is The Case of the Pipe Dream by Chantelle Messier which is, quite frankly, a work of bonkers genius. A Watson is dispatched to a ‘Victorian’ area of the city to attempt to repair a ‘broken’ Holmes, one reconstituted from a half-complete radio serial and dashes around solving shonky mysteries and interspersing his speech with product placement advertising. This by itself is smart and funny, but the conclusion of the story which sees Holmes and Watson battling the ‘Plot Device’ which is leaking genre into the town and causing everyone to act as villainous archetypes is the pinnacle of this anthology’s self-aware brilliance. And of course, the ‘Plot Device’ is disarmed by chucking in some volumes of literary criticism. “Literary theory, my dear Watson!’

Kelly Hale’s Art in the Blood is focused on Watson, with his Sherlock an agoraphobic hologram, casting him as a film-noir ladykiller who, in the course of his investigation, accidentally cops off with Sorcha Lock, the only female Holmes. The mystery afoot is something of an afterthought to the story, but like much of the rest of the anthology the joy is in the intriguing characterisation – and a Sam-Spade-Watson is up there with the best of the book.

That said, the final two stories can’t quite live up to what preceded them. The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate by Andrew Hickey sees two Watsons, the original and an affable, bumbling incarnation, investigating the disappearance of Arthur Conan Doyle, only to uncover his involvement in a mass religious conspiracy involving the remaking of bog men and fairies. Unlike the rest of the stories, this story feels very preoccupied with the mechanics of the mystery, lacking the imaginative genre play that the others have. Round off the collection, The Baker Street Dozen by Elizabeth Evershed features a Watson assigned a dim-witted anime Holmes investigating the remaking of a Moriarty, a trail that eventually leads them to a university facility housing all of literature’s most famous criminals. It feels like a great first two thirds of a novella – anime Holmes is funny and both the Agency and the odd asylum of villains is fascinating – but the ending suddenly evaporates in half a page. More please.

In fact, generally: more please. I didn’t know quite what to expect from the anthology – I’ve read quite a few Holmes anthologies, and I always enjoy those that bend the form until it squeals a bit. In that respect, Tales of the Great Detectives blows them out of the water; smart, cutting, self-aware and highly entertaining. Sequel, now.