When you view any foreign film, the inevitable first response is to filter the experiences through the lenses of your own cultural expectations. What you see triggers associations with memories of your own visual experience. You are reminded of television programmes and films you have seen. Because of Western notions of supremacy, you tend to find foreign films derivative. You think whatever you recall from your own culture must have come first. That the foreigners have merely copied these ideas. In the 1950s, I grew up with the constant reinforcement of the post-war myth that everything made in Japan was a cheap copy of one of “our” inventions. This gave us two reason to think badly of Japan (apart from the war which, as victors, we were supposed to put behind us as we rebuilt for the future). That all they could do was copy. There was no natural creativity. And that everything they did produce was cheap and poor value. In reality, this was the worst of manipulative protectionism, shielding our manufacturers from the very effective competition from abroad.
So it is particularly fascinating to come to Volcano High aka WaSanGo, a film written and directed by Kim Tae-Gyun, made in Korea in 2001. A casual first glance would nominate key words like kung fu, action and fantasy. But there’s rather more cultural substance to it. No matter what you might expect, this is not a routine “kung fu with fantasy elements” movie set in a High School. It’s a clever and innovative way of examining some of South Korea’s core values.
For a moment, let’s think about the culture of South Korea which derives its power from a mixture of Shamanism and Confucianism. It has the same general materialism of other “Asian” countries (using Asian in its broadest sense) valuing success and seeking for sufficient prosperity to ensure good health and a long life. But the primary values are filial piety, focussed on the family and depending at its root in continuous deference to those who are older and in positions of authority. This runs through the worship of ancestors, a practice intended to reinforce a general emphasis of social hierarchy. Everyone has their status and the respect accorded it. Maintaining this pecking order maintains a spirit of collectivism and social harmony. Conformity and loyalty to the peer group is fundamental. Yet there is always a potential for change through Shamanism. This proposes the view that there is an animate power in particular objects and nature in general, which can directly affect the fortunes of every individual.
So it is that Kim Kyeong-su played by Jang Hyuk comes to Volcano High. This is the end of the line for him. He has been kicked out of all the other local schools for indiscipline. In this, he is a great disappointment to his father who has always taught him to respect his elders and, if necessary, take a beating to prove it. This goes hard for the young man who is actually possessed of great supernatural abilities. Able to draw on water for strength and energy, he could be the most devastating of kung fu exponents. Yet, in this last chance saloon, no matter whether he is personally humiliated or he perceives others around him unjustly victimized, he makes a virtue of turning the other cheek.
What makes the story so interesting is the subversive nature of the actual power relationships both among the students and the staff. In this kind of film, we are always dealing with clichés. There’s the terrible school bully who uses his fighting skills to intimidate everyone else. This is Jang Ryang played by Su-Ro Kim When he deems the time right, he notifies the beautiful and righteous girl, Yu Chae-i played by Shin Min-A, that she is now to consider herself his girl. Needless to say, this is not well received. Then there’s the devious school deputy who is prepared to go to any lengths to secure possession of a kung fu manual hidden away by the mild-mannered school principal. Indeed, because it has remained hidden, there has been a seventeen-year lull in the feuds between the different clans and factions. The myths say whoever holds the manual will rule the world. So at a personal level, the deputy must oppose his “boss”, while at a society level, the prize is the ability to defeat the Korean hierarchy. It represents the end of deference and the use of skills to establish a new pecking order.
As you might predict, Kim’s arrival destabilises the dynamics among the students. The fact he chooses not to fight is more than obvious to all who see him. Then the plans of the deputy go awry and, with the principal incapacitated, he must call in outside help to find the manual and subdue the students. The arrival of a high-powered squad of five enforcers is the catalyst to bring Kim’s powers out in their full glory. In this he is fortunate that it’s raining most of the time — a factor that gives Kim access to enough power to beat all-comers. All he needs to do is break the conditioning imposed on him by his father and, when you place him in full context, all Korean society. Consider that he is now defying a group identified as disciplinary masters representing the power and authority of the Education Ministry. The fact they are not authorised and merely top kung fu exponents employed by the Deputy to find the missing manual does not change the challenge to Kim’s social conditioning. Fortunately, the student framed for the attack on the principal is able to help Kim achieve his full potential.
The hit squad’s leader, a maths teacher called Mr Ma, is played with wonderful malevolence by Jun-ho Heo). Without this pivotal performance, the film would collapse but, in a clever use of shadows, he moves as if partly cloaked in darkness. The cinematography and direction is careful to establish his dominant status and therefore represent the most effective challenge to Kim. Indeed, if the team had imposed order in a more even-handed way, Korean values would have prevailed and Kim would not have rebelled. Mr Ma must therefore victimise individuals and be manifestly unKorean to provoke our hero. When finally roused, Kim takes to the air in full wired combat mode as the rain sweeps across the sport field. Although some of the wire work lacks the control we now expect of these sequences, the resulting fight is really pleasing, driven by the intensity of Mr Ma’s control and the raw emotion of the rookie just coming into a full understanding of what he can do.
And at the end? Well, in a sense, order is restored and the key characters fall back into the roles expected of them. You can only bend Korean society so far before it snaps everyone back into place.
This is genuinely enjoyable whether you want to watch it just as a kung fu movie with faintly comic aspirations or as an interesting commentary on Korean social values. And, of course, it is creative, original and not derivative at all.
Zero History is a book that everyone and his dog has already reviewed. I guess this makes my thinking comparable to that of a flea on the backside of the last dog. For those of you who read these reviews, this introduction confirms my approach as self-deprecating. How can I hope to compete with the heavyweights? (Anguished tone.) Except, of course, this reviewing game is not a real competition. Although some media sources like the NYT, LA Times, The Independent, Guardian, et al have their brand names well-established, the opinions of us minnows are equally valid. Indeed, since we are not dependent on the advertising revenue from the corporations owning the big publishers, we’re far more likely to tell you the truth than these big newspapers. It’s just we run at a different level in the cyberverse (a real word, not of my coining, and for once, not one coined by William Gibson either — he only managed cyberspace). Whereas these media brand leaders have their reputations on the line every time anyone commits words to the virtual page, I can scribble whatever rubbish I like and delete the ad hominem abuse that comes in as comments without having to worry about my rep, street cred or any other measure of my traffic statistics. It’s all rather liberating, really.
So this William Gibson, whose name is a brand in its own right, selling books just because those two words appear on the front cover in a large font, has penned a third book in a series starting with Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. It has Hubertus Bigend putting together a team to find out all there is to know about a brand of clothes called Gabriel Hounds. Hollis Henry and Milgrim are back in the saddle and their quest starts in London, then moves over the Channel to Paris and thence to more distant ports of call.
One of the first things you notice about this book is the language. It has the kind of senseless magnificence that makes you want to use words with hyper as the prefix to describe them. You can imagine an author sitting down to have fun and producing this conflation of attitude, opinion and wit. When you read it, you feel as though you have suddenly been issued with a pair of skates and propelled out on to a frozen lake. The view is breathtaking, but spoiling the mood is the thought there may soon be a thaw and, if you are not careful, you could fall through the ice into the freezing waters below.
So you skate on in hope, trusting there will prove sufficient substance in the text to support you through to the end. Unfortunately, in Shakespearean terms, it slowly becomes apparent that the whole is “. . .full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (extracted from the Scottish play and other trademarked versions of the original name). No matter how superficially pleasing, whatever words are selected by the author should be employed in telling a good story. Looking back in time for a moment, there used to be a whole subculture that delighted in telling shaggy dog stories. These were wonderful conflations of hot air that momentarily delighted the ear until you arrived at the lamest possible punchline. Indeed, the more pedestrian the point of the story, the greater the teller’s perverse delight in wasting everyone’s time with it. Today, the original shaggy dogs have been consigned to the dustbins of history. Not even my elderly generation would tell them now. So it comes as a sad surprise to find William Gibson effectively writing a shaggy dog book. Consider the point of the story. Hubertus Bigend finds himself embroiled in an espionage caper over a clothing brand.
Now you can say this is an example of satire, a commentary on our modern obsession with branded goods. The brainless wealthy pay exorbitant sums of money to buy into the mythology of a brand identity. Our culture dictates that to be considered wealthy, you must be seen wearing these clothes with those accessories while driving this make and model of car. This is exclusivity through pricing. The reality is that clothes are just pieces of material with which to hide our nakedness and cars nothing more than a way from getting from A to B. Inflating the price of some bits of cloth to stratospheric levels and only making ten of them does not make them any more effective in protecting modesty. Indeed, to stand out from the crowd, it may be necessary for the branded clothing to redefine the social boundaries of modesty. Maintaining celebrity status depends on being talked about and photographed. Outraging current conceptions of public decency is one way to achieve just that end.
From all this you will gather William Gibson may have to do some work on his own brand image. His name has ensured reviews in all the top places. This is a response befitting an author with leading brand status. But if he tries to peddle “verbal fluff” like this too often, not even the most benign of reviews in the most auspicious of quality outlets will prevent more general word-of-mouth from devaluing his reputation. So you should only read this if you like spending an idle hour or so on literary frippery.
It is actually quite difficult to write a review of this second part of the Lighthouse Duet without it being a nonstop spoiler, but I will rise to the occasion. Having now completed both Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone back-to-back, I see this more clearly as a single novel that, rather arbitrarily, stops in the middle. This is done for the convenience of publishing and commercial exploitation. With this overview, I now understand why the duology, rather than one book from it, should win the Mythopoeic Award for 2009. In some ways, I think Carol Berg deserves this recognition for her work. With a smile, I can also report that Breath and Bone won the Colorado Book Award on its own.
As a more general opening point, I need to talk a little about first-person narratives. A part of its fascination is that it gives the reader a box-seat from which to view all the action. We are inside the mind of the main character. As a device for solving puzzles, it is unmatched. We see the same evidence as our “detective” and watch as he interprets this evidence, admiring how the different facts are woven together on our way to the ending.
So, first, the good news. I actually like the basic idea as a puzzle to be solved. The structuring of this world’s history and current reality elegantly unravels to reveal who is doing what, and gives a credible explanation of everyone’s motivation. I am also pleased by the dark nature of some of the events and of the magic employed. The morality of the ending partly depends on the redemption of at least one key player, all of which is quite well handled.
But there are two major problems with the way in which this pair of books is written. In this, I’m going to ignore the difficulty of a woman writing as a man. There are rather curious lapses in Valen’s attitudes and behaviour. For these purposes, we can explain them away as the aspects of “local” culture rather than a failure of the author to become a convincing man. After all, who is to say what a man is for the purposes of this world and its magic systems? The problems arise from the reliance on Valen as the one who must experience the transformation and come to understand the social as well as the physical landscape. It requires altogether too much introspection and interior monologuing. No matter what its faults, third party narrative shows and explains events with less risk of didacticism. Frankly, I grew rather tired of reading all that Valen could see and feel.
The author’s problem is always to walk the thin line between omniscience and resulting exposition on the one side, and the immediacy of insights into our hero’s character as his understanding improves on the other. Here, I think Carol Berg has bitten off more than we can comfortably chew. It is a highly complex social and political situation for Valen to analyse almost entirely on his own. In the end, I think it too much. I stopped being able to suspend my disbelief. So, just as at one point he physically becomes superman in the mundane world and jumps off a tall building with a single bound, so he intellectually leaps from one revelation to another by equally impressive feats of deduction and logic. Although I do concede that some solutions, e.g. for beating the addiction, are given to him by others.
The second problem is the lack of balance in the dynamics of the story. Flesh and Spirit has rather distant threats but, as we follow Valen’s slow development, we can accept the lack of a real villain. But we have to wait until more than halfway through Breath and Bone to identify the real source of the threat to both human and fey sides of the world. By then, it was all merely interesting. I think books are better structured when our hero must prepare to meet a more clearly identified threat. The standard device is that he looks outmatched, but surprises everyone by prevailing against the odds. Here, Valen is growing into his powers without a specific target. It is all rather abstract. I suppose with it being a first-person narrative, he cannot know who the real enemy is until he happens to meet him/her. Such is the problem in writing in the first-person.
Frankly, I think the duology would have been significantly improved with a multiple point-of-view structure. That way, we could have watched events unfolding in different parts of the world and seen how all the major threat elements were coming together. Forcing us all to work through the four remastis was three remastis too many. The author’s intent is to show us a late coming-of-age journey for Valen, but the price we must pay is delay and obfuscation over the central battle for the soul of the world. I prefer to see more economy in my world saving.
Nevertheless, the central mystery of the world, how it is being threatened and why, is elegant and well-developed. It is therefore sad to confess accelerating my reading at certain points through this second volume. I was strongly motivated to see how it was all resolved which meant skipping through the boring bits. That said, how everyone is left when the dust settles has a good feeling about it. This is not a simple happy ending. Deserts are justly apportioned.
As I ended the first review of Flesh and Spirit with a reference to “high-concept fantasy”, so I offer up this concluding Breath and Bone as a highly engaging and interesting work. It is not perfect by any means. Few works are. But it is certainly on the right side of “good” and well worth exploring if you like fantasy.
Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg is the first of a duology known as The Lighthouse Duet. This is the story of Valen, a man caught up in major political manoeuverings, both temporal and spiritual. As the book starts, he is soon embroiled with a few brave souls who believe their world is entering an end-of-days scenario. They have created an ark of knowledge which they hope will stand untouched if the threatened destructive forces arrive, much like a lighthouse stands against the stormy seas. It will carry the means to rebuild when the danger has passed. Yet this is not a straightforward world. There is a second dimension from which different beings influence the human world. Like the fey in our mythology, time passes at a different rate in their realm, they may kidnap “folk” from the human world, and they may produce changelings who can pass between the worlds. If the end of the human world is coming, perhaps they can help. Unfortunately, there’s also the possibility they may be responsible for the end. So what the humans need is a way of talking to these beings whether to invite their help or to fight back.
Thematically, Carol Berg is relying on one of the standard tropes: a man with magical abilities in denial. It all starts with him as a young boy. He has the misfortune to be dyslexic. To hide his disability, he learns to lie and cheat. He becomes a rebellious teen and refuses to follow in his family’s business as a magician. He should train and be pimped to the rich and powerful who can afford to pay for his talents. Instead, he goes walkabout in a perversely Australian sense of the word, i.e. in his late adolescence, he embarks on a nomadic quest. But instead of the usual spiritual purpose, Valen wants to lose himself. So, cloaked in anonymity, he travels the world ending as a mercenary when a war of succession breaks out. Sadly, his campaign does not go as he hopes and the book begins with him seriously wounded. In full retreat, his partner drops him off at the E.R. of a religious organisation notorious for its neutrality. As he heals physically, he also begins to find some peace within himself. Naturally a loner, he has had few companions other than fellow mercenaries. They bond out of self-interest, learning to rely on each other for survival. This kind of self-interested loyalty is not the same as friendship. In this new setting, his rejection of the world and its framework of magic is challenged. In part this is because he is tempted into more real friendships with the monks and some of the lighthouse operators. But his curiosity is piqued when he discovers there has been a recent murder. When a second monk goes missing, this confirms something real to investigate.
The central metaphor explored (pun intended) in this book is the nature and function of maps and mapping. There are many different ways of capturing the spatial reality of a world, recognising that this is not just to record physical geography, but also social structures. A map is of no use unless it tells you where something is in relation to other physical markers — after all, you might want to travel there. But it should also tell you how important the place or “thing” is — that helps you decide whether the journey using the mediaeval transport systems of walking and horses, is likely to be worth the effort. Mere humans see only the superficial lines on paper. Those with magical abilities may read deeper meanings into the symbols. The real question is what a dyslexic magician sees when he opens a book of maps. If meaning is denied from conventional symbols, might he see a different way?
Valen’s magical talent focuses on understanding landscapes. He is, if you like, sensitive to a locale and its recent history. My reason for the earlier reference to Australian Aborigines is their interest in the songlines, magical paths which cross the land and which you follow by humming the tune or singing the words of the song. So Valen also identifies musical threads that are woven together into each locale’s tapestry of memory. His stay in religious retreat cannot last, of course. He must re-enter the world to find answers to both his own problems and those affecting the people around him.
The result is a rather elegant tale. Although the fighting over the succession to the throne is not intended to be original, it gives the story a good centre of gravity. The human world is waiting for some kind of resolution so it can heal and move on. Except the threat of destruction looms over all. This conflict and the more pervading fear of doom are sharpened because of the acceptance of magic into the power structure. Mundane politics cannot ignore magical abilities and so must find a way of controlling the adepts. In this case, it means convincing the magicians to police themselves, forcing them to imprison those who will not toe the party line. Life is tough for a nonconformist like Valen.
All is told in a clear and well-structured prose, giving us just enough exposition to explain the context and then moving on with the action. In this case, the blending of fantasy and mystery is well handled. We feel Valen’s interest in working out exactly what is happening and why. At the end, everything is set up nicely for the second and concluding volume called Breath and Bone. It’s enjoyable and well worth reading if you enjoy high-concept fantasy.
For the record, the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009.
It’s a sad fact of life that all romantic films are formulaic. They depend on coincidences and unlikely turns of event to keep the couple twisting slowly in the breeze until it’s time for them to slowly wrap themselves around each other in the first real kiss. So, if all you want is something superficial, then the traditional romance is for you. But if you want something different, you are suddenly pitched into a very unpredictable world in which writers and directors try to tweak the formula to make it new.
In this instance, Korean cinema offers us Miseuto robin ggosigi or Mr. Robin kkosigi, also distributed as Seducing Mr Perfect. It tries to be innovative by producing a culture clash with a traditional Korean office suddenly revolutionised by the arrival of a man from head office. He’s second-generation Japanese and completely Americanised although, for the purposes of navigating the business and social world, he understands almost everything said to him in Korean. He even manages the odd word or phase in Korean, but we are left to assume his Japanese grandfather neglected to teach him spoken Korean. A real failure in parenting there!
It’s a genuinely strange experience to watch a film in which one of the lead characters listens with full understanding to one language and then replies in a second. This dissonance spreads to the rest of the film in that we have a man from a completely different culture immediately accepted into the Korean world. I hesitate to be direct, but painting Korean society as accessible to outsiders is little more than a fantasy. Although there’s a certain real-world deference to Americans — they are, after all, helping to defend the South against an increasingly belligerent North — Korea is not as comfortable with foreigners as shown in this film, particularly because our hero is of Japanese stock. This film was written when the Bush policies seemed to be fostering increasingly poor relations with the North. Worse, there were real difficulties surrounding the US bases on Korean soil with the usual arrogant ignorance of the soldiers inflaming local opposition to their presence. Korean attitudes towards Japan are also ambivalent. The historical rivalry and militarism remains even though the rhetoric has changed. The two states see some benefit in a good neighbour policy as a common front against the North. But I seriously doubt the arrival of a new “boss” with this background would have been welcomed with such open arms. What’s worse is that he seems to depend on corporate spying to get his results. Not something that would endear him to Koreans who struggle with their own problems of business ethics.
As to our heroine, Min-jun played by Jeong-hwa Eom, there’s no background laid for her sudden demonstration of deep knowledge and understanding of mergers and acquisitions in general, or of this proposed takeover of a Japanese company. She’s just a random lawyer who’s plucked from obscurity and then magically outshines everyone, both as a spy and an analyst. If you are going to have a woman embarrass male colleagues in a patriarchal society like Korea, then you should lay more background to demonstrate her expertise. As it is, our first view of her is as a dishonest slacker. She claims an operation for the removal of her appendix. In fact, she has just returned from an unauthorised expedition to Hong Kong where she hoped to meet her boyfriend for a birthday bash.
In fairness, Jeong-hwa Eom actually does rather well in what is a woefully underwritten role. I ended up liking her even though she is asked to play one of these slightly klutzy, dizzy and insecure women whose relationships always seem to go wrong. She is therefore twice victimised. She would be hopelessly patronised by the men around her at work and she is considered little more than a sex bunny by her boyfriend. Yet this is a woman who, when the Japanese deal is floundering, is able to pull the threads back together and save the day. As I said, this is a fantasy so we are invited to suspend disbelief and live through the moment of her success. After all, you only know for certain that you’ve won when the ink is drying on the contract.
The manner of her victory does require some comment. She pulls the Japanese team into a side room and explains that they must see past her boss as a bullying American. The fact his grandfather worked for this Japanese company is revealed. Underneath this unfortunate American exterior is a good Japanese grandson. The negotiating team go all misty eyed. The leader berates her for not saying so earlier. Of course this man can trample all over their values and traditions. The Japanese must show solidarity with each other. The deal will go through. I wish all mergers could be so easily completed.
Anyway, putting aside the incredible business deals and what we see of Jeong-hwa Eom as she becomes a leading Korean business woman, the real problem with the film is in Daniel Henney’s performance. To say he is wooden is being kind. Yes, he shows off his pecks and no doubt would be considered a hunk by Korean standards, but he is seriously lacking in the charisma stakes. Let’s be clear about this. He was dumped by his last girl friend. Rather than accepting this dismissal, he stalked her in an attempt to get her back. Not surprisingly since this happened in the US, the girl was a signed-up member of the NRA, pulled out her gun, and shot him. Only then did he get the message his presence was no longer tolerated. So this is a really unpleasant kind of guy, a corporate spy and raider who always wants his own way as he fights his way up to top management. Yet when he gets to Korea, he is magically transmuted into this sensitive guy with an immediate rapport with this local girl such he can offer her courtship advice on how to win the hearts of local men. As I said, this is a fantasy.
Yet, remarkably, in 2007, this film was nominated for two Grand Bell Award, the South Korean equivalent of the Oscars, Sang-woo Kim for Best New Director and Daniel Henney who went on to win the award for Best New Actor. It just goes to show that I have no understanding of what makes a good film in Korean eyes. It also probably means that as a straight man, seeing Henney without his shirt on a couple of times doesn’t persuade me this is a good film.
Let’s take two completely different situations. First, we have the consummate professional delivery rider called Sam. The firm may not value him, giving him the worst of the bikes with dangerous tyres, but the only people who can get from A to B faster are in a helicopter. On the ground, there’s no stopping him. Think parkour on a scooter and you have our man. Except he is both unlucky (so often late) and diffident (so hides his light under a bushel). It would therefore be harder to find a more down-trodden man. Particularly because his girl friend, Nadia, has already told her parents he is a businessman running a delivery company and with her sister’s wedding looming, she is being forced into the situation of having to introduce a failure to all her family. In this context, those of you who are old enough should remember Jour de Fête, a remarkable comedy by Jacques Tati. Here a rural postman is suddenly inspired to acts of greatness by seeing a documentary film about the US postal system. One should never be surprised when quiet men prove themselves lions.
Second, we have a top criminal gang that has stolen something of great value for a buyer. Now there has to be an exchange of value. To achieve this, the right players have to be in the right place at the right time with all that is necessary to make the exchange. Think Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett in the library with both the rope and the dagger. If anyone or anything is missing, the exchange will fail and serious criminals will be upset.
Now mix. At an early point in setting up the exchange, Loki, the courier played by the sauve Jimmy Jean-Louis, realises he is being followed, so hands over a large amount of cash in an envelope to Sam. All our star delivery man has to do is deliver the unopened envelope to a café in an adjoining neighbourhood. It should only take ten minutes. What could be easier?
The essence of good farce is that it should be absolutely straight. If anyone steps out of character and plays to the camera, showing they understand their situation, the whole effect is lost. So Sam must innocently take the package and then ensure it gets where it is supposed to go. Except. . . Well, it seems there are different groups determined to lay their hands on the stolen goods or the price to be paid for them or both. Sam is therefore taken in hand by one faction and must work out where to go next to use the money to buy the diamonds. So begins the pursuit of a logical trail across Paris. At different points, Nadia is kidnapped but does not realise it. One of Sam’s friends is kidnapped and does realise it. Sam appears to have rough sex with an Amazon who, when not beating up men, enjoys discussing the finer points of classical art. We all get to see a new version of the Macarena as a wedding dance, and learn how the possession of several staplers can make men dangerous.
All of this should indicate that this is a laugh-out-loud farce of the highest class. Yes, people fight and draw blood, and bullets fly with devastating effect on property. But as absurdity piles on logical absurdity, we move inexorably towards the final exchange, helped by Dickhead who cannot hold his urine, particularly after eating chocolate cake. We collect Professor Plum as our expert valuer and Miss Scarlett has the original stolen goods. The only question is whether Sam can stand in for Colonel Mustard.
As for the cast, everyone is wonderfully deadpan. Michaël Youn plays an increasingly desperate Sam who must somehow find his way through the maze. Géraldine Nakache as Nadia slowly comes to realise she is in the middle of gang warfare (even as her sister’s wedding goes on around her). While Catalina Denis as our Amazon warrior shows remarkable humanity for someone so deadly. Written and directed by Hervé Renoh a director moving from the small to the large screen, we have a wonderfully assured result, beautifully balancing the necessities of the plot and the opportunities for the principal characters to grow. It is genuinely hilarious and, if you do speak French, the bland English subtitles hardly do justice to the variety of the swearing. This adds to the humour but enables the film to show with a lower age rating. Most refreshingly, the mixture of ages and cultures in the surrounding seats were all laughing. Sometimes humour does not cross cultural boundaries. This seems to win people over by being a subversive action thriller. There is mayhem and chases, even a leap to make Evel Knievel proud, but all in the pursuit of amusement. It’s worth every cent to see it.
Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.
I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?
Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.
This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.
The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.
That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.
At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.
I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.
For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.
Here we are back with Subterranean Press and The Sky That Wraps, a handsome limited edition by Jay Lake with impressively evocative jacket art by Aurélien Police whose work is rather beautiful and haunting.
Leading off this collection, “The Sky That Wraps the World Round” (1) is beautifully understated, dealing with matters of planetary significance allusively, leaving it to the reader to make the necessary inferences. It is also pleasing to see a US author prepared to set a story somewhere foreign. Too often, American parochialism limits locales either to unreality through world-building or to some version of Poughkeepsie. “Journal of an Inmate” is a delightful story of innocence. Academic psychologists have grown increasingly fascinated with people too stupid to realise how stupid they are.(2) These are the terminally incompetent who will never understand why everything they touch always fails. So it is that a man who has given loyal service to a government upsets someone in power and is sent off to die in a distant prison. Soldiers are often victimised in this way. Civilian life is such a challenge to those who lack political skills. When hope dies, our hero surrenders himself to death only to find some acceptance of his lot in being denied even this simple request.
“Achilles Sulking In His Buick” is a good joke, all the better because the experienced Jay Lake knows when to cut and run. “Crossing the Seven” is also a kind of joke in that our hapless jobbing builder has the misfortune to be struck by lightning and caught in a compromising situation with a priestess. Yet, instead of executing him, expedience demands his transformation into a living symbol of hope, a messenger sent from a threatening star to take away the people’s fear. This sets his feet on a dangerous peregrination to the seven cities, allowing the seven Queens to use his progress as a kind of magic trick. His tenacious hold on life inadvertently saves the world from panic. It also leaves him with survival skills that may suit him to a career rather better than roof repairs. “The Leopard’s Paw” sees Flash Gordon becoming Conan becoming a leopard, although perhaps only in spirit. If that’s too much becoming for you, it shows how little you like Howardly barbarian fun. “Coming For Green” takes a harder edge to a barbarian world which in a young Amazon comes of age as she searches for a fellow acolyte forced from their Order after an assassination. The entry into adulthood comes when she realises she has become fearless. Meanwhile, back in the city, “A Water Matter” sees the consequences of that assassination begin to play out in a hunt leading to the death of knowledge.
Thematically, this continues in “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” in which a young girl is schooled in survival and leadership, growing into a woman who can trust herself and the decisions she makes. Counterintuitively, this begins with depersonalisation, then each facet of what it means to be a woman must be experienced and shed like a snake. The question, of course, is simple. Why does this programming actually produce a better leader? I suppose the answer is that if no-one ever pushes you beyond what you believe are your limits, you will never find out how far you can go. “Witness to the Fall” is an elegant tale of magic and its ability to see through appearance to the petty jealousies of everyday life. Small communities live in each other pockets. Those who claim the key offices build themselves up and have the farthest to fall when the past and present collide. “Number of the Bus” continues with numerology as the magical skill. In another coming-of-age story, a young magician must sever the ties of the past and embrace his talent. “A Different Way Into The Life” continues the same magical methodology with a different wizard demonstrating state-of-the-art skills in understanding the magical landscape. I like the logical extension of the magic into accountancy and the cut-throat word of Mergers and Acquisitions. This is an author prepared to explore the implications of his own creativity. The third of the wizard stories, “Green Grass Blues”, changes the methodology to more conventional earth magic, but continues the trend of a young apprentice wizard slowly coming to recognise danger and then having to cope.
“Fat Man” takes us back out into the free-flow of the supernatural with a wonderfully atmospheric Bigfoot accidentally caught in the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle. This is one of these hiding-in-plain-sight stories where you always have enough information to know what’s going on, but prefer not to think about it. The process to make our Sasquatch so big is pleasingly original. I can’t remember anything similar in more years of reading than I care to admit. “Dogs in the Moonlight” has fun at the expense of rural Texans who love their guns and dogs more than their wives, until someone else loves their wives. Then they get all-fired jealous and find good use for the guns. Shame that sometimes what you shoot don’t stay quite as dead as it should. “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” is set in prehistory as a mother’s death teaches the child about life, love and memory. If you’re “On the Human Plan” (3) then all you have to look forward to is death. If this is something that bothers you, perhaps you’d better change plans. “Lehr, Rex” is a recasting of that most excellent film, Forbidden Planet, as King Lear with a little P. K. Dick and Doc Smith thrown in for good measure. It is a nicely paranoid rumination on what it might feel like to be human, assuming you should ever have cause to ask yourself the question, of course.
“The Man With One Bright Eye” is a son plucked out of time who finds possible true love, but is unable to make progress down the road of life until he can step out of his mother’s shadow. “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” is also about who we are as people as we age. How much does the passage of time change us? In theory, the slow accumulation of experience should make us more wise but life is not always fair. Sometimes, the shadows from our own past haunt our present life. Incidentally, this might also apply to a machine intelligence as well. “To This Their Late Escape” adds the question of how best to occupy time while waiting for rescue. Perhaps a small-scale conflict might wile away the hours. “Skinhorse Goes To Mars” is a different take on life and death. Starting with the assumption we had made the Earth, Mars and Venus uninhabitable, would we just give up and die, or would we fight? Er. . . Who’s left to fight? “A Very Old Man With No Wings At All” wonders what happened after the Fall of Satan. “People of Leaf and Branch” plays with the idea of interacting life cycles. Through time, the culture of people changes. Just as a seed grows into a sapling and then a tree that drops more seeds, it’s plus ça change but not quite as la même chose as evolution plays its part. Similarly, “Chain of Fools” sees a newly promoted Captain take her first ship out only to discover that her sheltered training had not quite prepared her for the reality of leadership. Finally, “The American Dead” (4) tell us that while sex usually improves the mood, it’s not the panacea some priests would have the rich believe.
Looking back, we can now see general themes in Jake Lake’s work. He is interested in innate potential and how people get the best out of themselves. Sometimes, they are given the chance to do the heavy lifting on their own but, more often, they are prodded or provoked by circumstances or meddlers, and must shine to survive. Overall, this is one of the best collections of 2010 and worth every cent.
(1) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(2) Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.
(3) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(4) Selected in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2007; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 18, ed. Steve Jones, Robinson (UK), October, 2007.
So here we are with The Bird of the River by Kage Baker. It is set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag but is one of these happy authorial accidents rather than someone sitting down to write a sequel, i.e. you can read it without any knowledge of the other two books. Thinking about the circumstances, I suppose we should approach this as a potential swan song. As an aside, the idiom often has a quietly perverse interpretation. In theory, it should follow the reality which is that the best a Mute Swan can manage during its life is a venomous hissing and the odd honk but, in old folk tales, the sentimentalists often give it one beautiful note just before, or upon, death. Such is the power of a romantic imagination. The modern usage tends to celebrate a successful performer who manages to pull out one final act of magnificence, usually knowing it will be the last possible before death. When the audience is in on the secret, it makes the event all the more poignant, becoming a highly emotional way for everyone to say goodbye. We lose this impact in the written form because readers may come to a book many years later without knowing the background. In this instance, it is hard to predict how many full-length posthumous works we will see in print so, for now, let’s treat this as Ms Baker’s last.
This is a mystery masquerading as a fantasy novel. The headless body of a wealthy family’s son is found in the river, so the undercover PI works his passage on a river barge as it makes its way upstream clearing hazardous underwater obstructions. He hopes to track down the killer and recover the victim’s head — perhaps, like Moslems, the families of this world’s powerful elite prefer to have all the body parts collected together for a respectful burial. You also have to remember this is a fantasy and people are often beheaded for the best of reasons. When barbarian or demon hitmen of limited brainpower are involved, they take heads to prove they killed the right person. Anyway, the set-up has the young PI meet the young lady with keen eyes and surprising intelligence on the barge and they pair up to work out who done what to whom and why.
As I have commented before, Ms Baker may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists but, when on form, she could tell a good story. In part, she became a willing victim of the publishing industry. Obviously, when someone is throwing money at you, there’s a temptation to give the people what they want. In this and most other cases, the bean-counters want length, believing the buying public wants more words for their bucks. Hence, there has been a slow but steady inflation of the published lengths of “novels”. For them that can spin out a slight story and hold the readers’ interest, this is easy money. But for people like Ms Baker, this was a real challenge. She was excellent as a short story writer and turned in some top-class novelettes and novellas. But the novels could be very patchy when she struggled to find those extra words.
Hence, it is with great relief that I can applaud this book. It is short by modern standards. Perhaps the need to finish it before death overtook her forced a more direct approach. For whatever reason, we are left with a stronger novel, even though it could be considered YA in spirit. It is an adequate mystery with a relatively unobtrusive magic element, and it positively zips along, easily holding interest and driving through to the end. For once, I can give unreserved praise and, more importantly, if this should prove to be the last novel, it is a good swan song effort.
So here’s a conundrum for you. If a quintessentially British publisher hires S T Joshi, an Indian American editor, to produce an anthology based on H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos — he’s a quintessentially American author — in which version of English should the book be typeset? Having been in the publishing game myself, I always set my books in British English. I am therefore intrigued to find Peter Crowther setting Black Wings (PS Publishing, 2010) using American English spellings and conventions. Thus, he favors settings like “this,” and past-participles like gotten. Of course, I recognise that the majority of these rather handsome hardbacks are likely to be sold into the US market. But, having just reviewed Clowns at Midnight by an Australian author with British English settings, I would be interested to know why this publisher does not appear to have a consistent policy. Anyway, as those of you who have read these reviews will know, I’m a Lovecraftian mythos person. ’Nuff said.
Staying with the opening issue of language brings me to “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” by Caitlin R Kiernan. This is a rather elegant recreation of the literary style of the late 1920s with heavily convoluted sentence construction and context-specific vocabulary. It’s heartening to see an author prepared to subsume her own personality in this first-person, stubborn man’s narrative. She produces a rather pleasing story that investigates the links between the artist Pickman, his friend’s suicide and an actress. It’s a nicely ambiguous story in which we consider what happens when we deny our beliefs. Just imagine, we might believe the world normal, or we might know it was not and wish to renounce it. “Desert Dreams” by Donald R Burleson is a more routine story locating the source of the dream summons in the New Mexico desert. Our hero travels for his enlightenment. “Engravings” by Joseph S Pulver Sr. has a nicely cruel Nyarlathotep using his own seed to open the way. This is a more modern and muscular story that makes it point with appropriate economy.
Then we come back to the question of language. “Copping Squid” by Michael Shea is a wonderful exploration of what it takes to write cosmic, if not eldritch, contemporary fiction. Here is an author at his best, crafting a vehicle with such a curiosity bump, you would want to ride all the way in it to perdition. Everything is right: the vocabulary and the flair with which it’s used, turning the rational world upside down as our reformed alcoholic suddenly finds himself addicted to a different way of viewing the world.
“Passing Spirits” by Sam Gafford is one of the more original Lovecraftian stories in the anthology, featuring Lovecraft himself and many of his creations, bending the real world of uninsured horror as our hero’s brain cancer spreads. What we perceive and understand about the world is all mediated through our brains. So if anything were to disrupt the smooth working of this fine engine, we would find it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Probably, because of our creativity and imagination, the fiction would win out. “The Broadsword” by Laird Barron touches all the right bases in Mythos terms but is somewhat diffuse, failing to pick a focused conclusion and work towards it. This may be to unmask an alien in a human body, or show a kind of kidnapping in which an alien is implanted, or have aliens come out of the cracks of the walls and feast on local people, or two long-term friends are separated in wilderness trauma but later reunited. Anything along one of these lines would be sufficient. As it is, the detail of the Broadsword Hotel and its failing infrastructure adds little to the outcome. Our hero’s fairly routine life as a senior could have been anywhere. There is a good story here but the logic of events is not as clear as it should be, and it should have been edited down to its core essentials.
“Usurped” by William Browning Spenser is a simple bait-and-switch story as Azathoth waits in the desert for passing snacks. Unlike Barron’s wandering epic, this is economical and powerful. “Denker’s Book” by David J Schow follows in similar fashion with a wry take on the power of the Necronomicon to open the way into different dimensions. It manages to be steam punkish and contemporary. No mean feat when the Old Ones are around. “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” by W H Pugmire is a genuinely macabre, if not weird, notion that people themselves may be canvasses or perhaps become living works of art or maybe they’re just dying to be a part of the big picture. This is all very deft with nothing really explained but enough hinted at to be completely fascinating. “The Dome” by Mollie L Burleson is unconvincing. When you have to rely on day-time coincidences with no significant dates, you should know your plot is poor. “Rotterdam” by Nicholas Royle is an editorial choice I find strange. This is an excellent piece of crime fiction, nicely playing off Antony Gormley’s use of figures in landscapes to enhance the urban atmosphere of potential menace (as in Event Horizon, New York). But the only link to the theme is that the men are searching for locations to make a Lovecraft film. This strikes me as stepping outside the remit. Really good story, though.
“Tempting Providence” by Jonathan Thomas is the longest story in the anthology and replays the old trope of fishermen and their lures with a nicely Lovecraftian twist. I was beguiled not only by the memories of Providence, but also by the impeccable awareness of the hero, understanding the significance of the temptations and reacting with appropriate caution (for a review of a collection by Thomas, see Tempting Providence). It is always satisfying to meet an author who believes in establishing credible characters even though they may be stuck in incredible circumstances. “Howling in the Dark” by Darrell Schweitzer has our hero meet with a Black Man who walks through the darkness to gaze upon the immensity of Azathoth, all the while trying the reconcile his inherent humanity with the necessity of sloughing off all emotions if he is to be one with the night.
“The Truth About Pickman” by Brian Stableford is a wonderfully malevolent story in which we can watch a cunning man in action. How appropriate that the US and Britain should not only be separated by a common language but also from common infections. Lurking on the threshold of this story awaiting admission is a wicked sense of humour. “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman is a slightly more conservative effort in which the denizens described in De Vermis Mysteriis emerge into our underground world of tunnels and cellars.”The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” by Ramsey Campbell is an elegant conceit but I found it grew rather boring, failing to build any real tension or anticipation.
“No Violence, Child of Trust” by Michael Cisco is rather an odd story in which the country family goes through its rituals. Sadly, I had a brain malfunction and didn’t really understand it. “Lesser Demons” by Norman Partridge gets me back into more familiar territory with a roller-coaster ride through a zombie plague with a twist. If you are going to bend Lovecraft, this is an excellent way to do it, pitting bookish curiosity against a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander is a pleasing joke. Humour is the most difficult of tricks to pull off when everything around you is weird, so kudos to both the author in writing it and the editor for including it. “Substitution” by Michael Marshall Smith also represents a slightly sardonic take on the Mythos theme as our hero with a jaded palate talks himself out of the frying pan and then wonders why it’s getting hot. And, finally, “Susie” by Jason Van Hollander has a devoted servant leaving this mortal coil with things undone.
For those of you who read Mythos stories, there are some real gems to savour here but, as is always the case when personal taste confronts editorial choices, there are also stories I found rather indifferent. Overall, it’s good value for money for Lovecraft devotees.
This anthology has been shortlisted for the Best Anthology category in the 2011 World Fantasy Awards.
For a review of the sequel anthology see Black Wings II: New Tales of Lovecraft.