According to the Stanislavski system, an actor has to access the “reality” of a character by first considering the external person and then seeking out the characters’s inner thoughts and feelings. I’m reminded that Alec Guinness once famously said he could never get into character until he found the right pair of shoes to wear. Sir Laurence Olivier used to take his characters to see a therapist (only metaphorically, of course). In a sense, such anecdotes capture the essential problem for stage actors. The proscenium arch both separates the stage from the auditorium, and provides a doorway for the imagination through which the audience may empathise with the characters on stage. What attracts the audience through the arch? Why will they suspend disbelief? Although it remains unspoken, there’s a conspiracy between the actor and the audience. The viewers must be convinced of the authenticity of the movements so, if those movement fit the prevailing stereotypes, the performance will be deemed a success. It’s a difficult balance between naturalism and an entirely artificial technique. Think of it as a craft. Those who master it become famous.
One of the more interesting aspects of the writing process is to watch the author find the prose style that most comfortably fits the subject matter. The intellectual process of selecting the words, arranging them into sentences and committing them to a page (virtual or otherwise) creates the proscenium arch. Now the trick for the author is to persuade the readers to pass through the words into the performance by the characters on the page. Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas (Necro Publications, 2011) is a slight departure from the prose style we see in some of his more overt horror and supernatural writing. This is more densely written, layered with more detail and interior monologue. It takes its time and challenges the reader to move more slowly. So why does this style fit the subject matter?
There are two reasons. The first is Jeffrey Thomas has chosen to move us through time. He begins the story in 1909 and ends in 1996. On the way, we meet several people from history and some of the events match those in the real world. This takes more time to set up. Just as a stage or film production must achieve some degree of credibility in the set design, the choice of furniture and the placement of other more personal objects, an author must decorate his text with sufficient detail so we can believe ourselves in different times. Like the performance, it’s a difficult balancing act to insert just enough information without it becoming a boring history lesson. So, as to external reality, we must have the places described and get the right period shoes for the characters to wear. Then we must come to their inner thoughts and feelings. This marks the second reason. Although we meet a number of people, Blood Society is the journey of Attilio Augusta who, in unexpected circumstances, finds himself changed into something different.
This is not a conventional monster book (insofar as any book about what resembles a vampire may be considered a book about a physical monster). This is a young man who finds himself cast adrift on the seas of time. In due course, he decides the best fit for himself is as one of the mafiosi. Not as one of the leaders, of course. The inability to age would give him away if he was seen too often in public. So he finds a way of working behind the scenes. Although none of the mobsters take kindly to paying him a percentage, he creates enough fear to ensure he becomes rich without being the subject of interest to the police. After all, he does have interesting skills to offer his criminal associates. Years pass, but therein likes the rub. Without anyone else to share his life, he faces the loneliness of immortality. A solution would be to turn others to join him. Together they could watch the humans age and die. But this offends his notions of morality. He was not given a choice. . . Then circumstances conspire. The woman who turned him reappears. Her motives are less than clear. And his adopted son is seriously injured.
One of the central preoccupations evident in the short stories and books by Jeffrey Thomas is the nature of identity. No matter whether we are pitched into contemporary America, an alien world or Hell, we are challenged to understand the main protagonist(s). In this instance, we have a young Sicilian fisherman with an eye for pretty girls. He’s physically strong, a good lover and inexperienced in the world outside Sicily. When he has all the time in that world, what could he become? He could spend the years learning to paint or play an instrument, but he was born into a culture that placed no value on such frivolous activities. In part, this is a class issue. His cultural outlook limits his choices. So, predictably, he drifts into crime. The question is whether this will be his only future. Once formed, habits are difficult to break. He’s accumulating wealth but, at some point, he’s going to ask what value the money has. Perhaps loneliness will divert him. Will the fisherman who was turned into a physical monster and chose to become a criminal monster turn away and find a different life?
I confess to being fascinated. Attilio is the prisoner of his own limited education. He lacks the imagination to experiment, to explore the new body he has developed. He’s essentially passive, relying on reactive defensive skills to get by. Only when his world view is challenged does he make any effort to grow. Even then, he seems locked into the mobster mentality that you meet violence with more violence until the other side has lost too much to continue the battle. So, at each point in time, Jeffrey Thomas finds the right shoes for Attilo to wear and we can cross through the more detailed prose style and understand the tragedy of this monster’s existence. Blood Society is well worth seeking out as one of the more thoughtful and, therefore, best vampire-type books of 2011.
When you set off to write a fantasy, there are a number of rules everyone expects you to follow. There must be a mediaeval world and, in the majority of cases, some form of workable magic, often with elves, trolls and other supernatural folk lurking in the shadows. The political structure will usually follow the European model of relatively small kingdoms and principalities so there’s plenty of opportunity for strife between the various kings and princes. Trade will be mentioned but will rarely be discussed in any detail except to mention where castles might be needed to guard trade routes and collect a small toll every time anyone passes through. The only news on the economic front will usually be some vague reference to how hard it is to collect the taxes. For the most part, readers don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of how these small states pay their way. All they want is action, preferably with people waving swords around and casting the odd spell. For these purposes, there’s a slight difference of opinion. Some authors prefer to gather all the interested parties into the royal court and then have a gaggle of scheming nobles duke it out until the good guy(s) or, occasionally, gal(s), prevail. The others go for a more peripatetic approach with the hero(es) traipsing around the countryside. This has the virtue of allowing us to get a better view of the life of the common people as we variously dive into local taverns and meet up with the underworld — it’s perhaps not surprising how often the heroes are criminals or mercenaries or both. They tend to be more our kind of people. We can feel more comfortable lifting a noggin with a hedge knight than a champagne flute with Lancelot.
All of which brings us to Theft of Swords by Michael J Sullivan. For those of you not familiar with this author, he has emerged from the obscurity of being one of the unpublished by self-publishing five of his first six novels. His own journey is an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about the future role of traditional publishing houses. In this instance, having established his name as a brand, he’s been able to sell both American rights to Hachette and foreign rights into a growing number of markets. More power to him and other authors who can establish their credibility through the internet. Except this may be signalling a trend for publishing houses to become even more risk-averse when asked to take up unpublished authors. They may prefer to wait until the cream of the self-published crop rises to the top of the Amazon Bestsellers list and then cherry pick the talent. This gives them a profit stream without the need to invest in building the names of the new talent.
So what’s Theft of Swords about? This is the first of three omnibus volumes as the publishers bring their marketing and distribution expertise to bear on spreading the word about this author. The aim is to rerelease the first six books as pairs. Overall, the series is called Riyria Revelations. This book contains The Crown Conspiracy (October 2008) and Avempartha (April 2009) so it gives reviewers like me a good opportunity to assess this “new” author. I immediately find myself in a parallel world to the short stories and novels by Fritz Leiber featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. In this reworking of the trope, we have Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater. Respectively, they are thief and muscle, albeit the latter is skillful with the sword and most other weapons that come to hand. They work as a freelance criminal duo and, though modest to a fault, are considered top professionals. Consequently, the rich and powerful pay them to undertake a range of activities from simple theft to assassination.
In The Crown Conspiracy, the first theft goes off reasonably well but the second commission lands them in enough trouble to carry us through to the end of the book. However you look at this work, it’s a rather Spartan piece of prose, delivering a plot at breakneck speed with minimal exposition and surprisingly little description. That’s both good and bad. As a reading experience, it zips along but, with the exception of a little historical background delivered by a monk with an eidetic memory, there’s very little context for the action. We land in medias res and emerge at the end with a rough idea of what’s going on but a lot of unanswered questions. Under normal circumstances, I would find this rather trivial, particularly because the twists and turns of the plot are all rather contrived. To be honest, it’s not very original. But it’s rescued by an underlying sense of fun. While it lacks the wit of Leiber, there’s enough humour on display to encourage us into Avempartha.
Immediately, the intention is signalled as we stand outside the Gray Mouse Tavern and finally learn that Riyria, the business name adopted by the duo, is elvish for “two”. Not that this detail is important in the overall scheme of things, but it’s symptomatic of the lack of explanatory detail in the first volume. Now, there’s a sudden flood of information about Royce’s earlier life as Duster before we set off to Dahlgren (courtesy of Delany who always used to know there was magic in names) to break into a tower called Avempartha where, according to the magician they rescued in the first book, there’s a sword that can kill a rather dangerous beast. Except, of course, the beast may be rather more intelligent than we might initially want to believe. While our heroes are off to find the wizard, the wheels of the conspiracy to restore the Empire are turning with reasonable smoothness and Arista, the young King’s sister, is in the thick of it all, sent out as an Ambassador to represent the kingdom when key people gather for a “contest”. That this contest turns out to be in Dahlgren where the rather dangerous beast is on the loose, is just one of those strange coincidences that adds to life’s rich pattern.
In this second book, Michael Sullivan has chosen to write something more than a plot skeleton and the prose has a pleasing richness. Perhaps, more importantly, the broader intention of the Church’s conspiracy is becoming clear, as is the motivation of our maimed mage (some alliteration when dealing with magicians is always a good thing). Even the dwarf assassin and trap builder from the first volume turns out to be a not too unreliable person to have around. When you take the two books together, this is obviously the start of a very good story. Although the level of inventiveness was unimpressive in The Crown Conspiracy, we can see much more authorial effort expended in Avempartha. The level of detail has improved significantly and the implications of the relationships between the humans, dwarves and elves has a great deal of potential. Theft of Swords has triggered my curiosity bump and I’m genuinely interested to see where Michael Sullivan takes us next. So, if you have not already done so, this pair of books is well worth picking up as a single package. The remaining volumes are Rise of Empire and Heir of Novron and, assuming Sullivan maintains the momentum, equally worth pursuing.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Sense and Sensibility (2008) is a three-part BBC adaptation of the classic novel by Jane Austen starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, and Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars. One of the points of the novel is the difference between Elinor and Marianne. My own preference, for what it’s worth, is a Marianne who’s a victim of her choice in reading material. Such is her passion for romantic fiction and poetry that she develops an unrealistic view of the world. This colours her actions and attitudes at every point. Elinor, on the other hand, is the epitome of practicality. If she does allow herself dreams of what might be, they are firmly recognised for what they are and subservient to more immediate needs. Yet although Hattie Morahan’s Elinor seems to be striking the right notes, Charity Wakefield’s Marianne seems cut from a similar cloth. Indeed, until we get to her overreaction in meeting Willoughby, she’s been rather more constructive and accepting of their fate in being banished to the wilderness than I would have believed possible. That said, once at the cottage, Marianne is allowed to behave in a completely uncivilised manner without sanction. She wilfully snubs poor Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) who’s kept waiting for an unconscionable length of time, and her reward is to be carried back into the house by Willoughby — neither Elinor nor her mother (Janet McTeer) attempt to correct her barbaric lack of manners.
Willoughby is generally shown to be at the very least culturally insensitive over the offer of the horse and then in whisking Marianne off when Colonel Brandon’s picnic is abruptly cancelled. The slightly scary obviousness of his intentions lead the neighbourhood to believe they are engaged. The possibility of the scandal is therefore established for the visit to London with Mrs Jennings (Linda Bassett). Yet, the whole production feels rushed. We only have an hour and must get Brandon out of the way, Willoughby off to London, Edward Ferrars on a whistle-stop visit, and the Steele sisters into play. That means a lot of ground to cover with a few broad brushes of the scriptwriter’s pen. The last of the three episodes continues at a headlong gallop, often with a rather more modern use of language than Jane Austen could ever have dreamed up. Elinor and Marianne are crushed by Willoughby in public and Mrs Jennings is shocked to discover the libertine is engaged to another. Edward’s engagement is revealed to his unsympathetic mother by the dim Miss Steele and he’s sent off without a penny. In Cleveland, Marianne falls ill (obviously disaster befalls her whenever she wonders around in the rain and has to be carried back in the arms of a strong man), Willoughby appears and Brandon does all the right things. Minutes later, we are back in the cottage by the sea (another interesting decision to include all the dramatic scenes of waves rushing in upon the romantically rocky shore). Marianne plays the piano in Brandon’s library, sees how good he is with a falcon and agrees to marry him. Edward comes and declares his love, and before you can say whatever you feel is appropriate in these situations, it’s all over.
Frankly, I’m in a state of mild despair. The decision to try cramming everything into a nominal three hours (allowing for the odd advertising break every now and again) has produced superficial characterisations, key scenes are omitted as where Brandon agrees to give Edward a living, and the general tone of the production is slightly darker than I would have expected. In the last episode, Elinor and Marianne are in bed together discussing men. There’s no better place for such discussions. Marianne wonders whether men treat women as mere playthings. This seems to be emphasised by the way in the which production is paced. Willoughby is shown as something of a sexual predator. The inclusion of an actual duel with Brandon is an interesting decision to show Willoughby’s humiliation in private does nothing to damp down the public persona. Indeed, his manner in the London ball could not be worse and his dismissal of his new wife when confronting Elinor in Cleveland is cold-hearted, as is the implicit denial of wrongdoing in siring an offspring with Brandon’s ward. Where it not for Marianne’s lack of experience and more romantic temperament, he would never have made progress. Her experience shocks her into accepting Brandon as a rock she can cling to in any storm. I’m not sure I’m convinced by this Marianne’s declaration of love for the man. She seems to be recovering from Willoughby rather quickly and emerging as somewhat flighty. In the novel this is avoided because she firmly explains her emotions as being less than love. That’s why her marriage is a triumph of sense over sensibility.
But the real problem comes with the lack of screen time for Edward. The whole point of this man is his honour. Yet we are never given the chance to get to see the man and understand just how seriously he takes any promise he makes. This underwriting complicates what we see of Elinor’s reaction to him. Depending on how you view their first meeting, he may be seen as leading her on when he knows he cannot take it further. Or we could see Elinor as being as overly romantic in her reaction to him. Why is there this confusion? It’s the scene in the library at Norland. By allowing Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton) to leave and give them the necessary privacy, he’s encouraging Elinor to believe a proposal is coming. Worse, he should know Margaret will almost certainly pass on the news to the rest of the family. The behaviour of a gentleman of the time would never have allowed this to happen. He would have been sensitive to the needs of preserving propriety if others were present or of ensuring privacy. So this production starts us off on the wrong tack with this character. Frankly, this is one of the many problems with the script by the usually reliable Andrew Davies.
We can perhaps forgive the opening sex scene. It does give some credibility to the power the wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) exercises over John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and sets up the scenes showing the marginalisation and departure of the female Dashwoods to their impoverished cottage. The country houses and interiors, as always, show high production values and give the adaptation considerable credibility. If only there had been four rather than three hours, we might have had the time to meet and get to know the people. Sad really but, for once, this Sense and Sensibility is a poor show despite the more than competent acting of the principals.
Murder of the Bride by C S Challinor (Midnight Ink Books, 2012) is inherently interesting on a number of counts. For books of this type to be regarded as a success, there must be an elegant mystery to solve. Preferably, clues should be lying about in plain sight so we can try to second-guess the detective. The experts or the lucky can then be triumphal. They’ve beaten the author at her own game. The rest of us lummoxes, can do the “aw shucks, why didn’t I think of that” routine when the reveal comes at the end. In this case, kudos to Ms Challinor who pivots neatly in the direction of her gaze before coming to the final explanation. I was my usual lummox self and failed to remember the finer points of our culture when it comes to naming people. This is a pleasing puzzle and, although the casual way the local doctor protects the confidentiality of his patients’ records is contrived, the investigation is credible and the author plays fair. Our series hero, lawyer and occasional detective Rex Graves, really does work it out on the basis of what he sees and hears.
So what’s it about? With brief introductions out of the way, we’re off to the wedding and a quick introduction to the potential killer(s) as the invitees gather at the church. Then we pile into the assortment of available cars and straggle past the pub to the local exercise in architectural vandalism with resulting deaths and the theft of some valuable nick-nacks. It’s a classic Golden Age situation with a reasonably closed number of suspects all milling around a wedding reception that’s spread over several “open” rooms with access to the rest of the building to anyone with the courage to walk upstairs or through unlocked doors. We then come to the second point of interest. All modern “detective” books must confront the problem of a nonprofessional inserting himself into an official investigation. In these modern times, the police on both sides of the Atlantic tend to be a little jealous of their role as the detectives, by default rejecting the help of well-meaning amateurs. Gone are the days of a Christie-style private detective acting as consultant to the incompetent authorities. Almost every modern “detective” must achieve success despite the opposition of the police. Since our hero is already present, is the first to suggest the cause of the problem when guests collapse, and is then left to his own devices with a lone inexperienced Police Constable on the premises, he can get a lot of the heavy-lifting done before a more senior officer arrives. He’s then conveniently recognised as having had success in the past (such is the price of fame) and is informally accepted as part of the team when he fairly quickly explains a part of the day’s events.
This gives him a licence to jump in a car (no problems with the alcohol level behind the wheel) and zoom down into the village to talk with key people and top up the alcohol level in the pub denied him before and after the church ceremony. The third point of interest is Ms Challinor observes the unity of time. Following on the European tradition which first really got started in the work of Racine, the action is continuous over a single day although, as to place, we do move around the village and its environs a little. This means our hero can get to the answer before officialdom shuts him out. On the subject of unity of place, I should mention a death at another location and a need to consider where steps might have been taken to make the murder(s) possible. But the point of view rigorously stays with Rex. Others report outside events to him and so they come within our consideration.
Finally, this is one of those books in which an American author who was educated in Britain, has chosen to base her series character in Scotland. From this auspicious location, Rex launches himself into investigations at various points around the UK, in Jacksonville and on one of the Caribbean islands. The authorial challenge is therefore to strike a balance between a necessary “Britishness” for many of the characters and the dictates of an essentially American reading audience. This is not simply about the spelling. Those who read with any kind of awareness tend to judge the success of any book on whether the creation of each character and mis-en-scène feels credible. For American readers, the author must supply just enough detail to match their stereotypes and prejudices. If there are to be British readers (of which I am one), some care must be taken not to unduly offend their sensibilities. At this point, I’m going to spend a moment being deeply unfair to the author. This is a book intended for the American market and an editor would quickly change details like ER to A&E for British publication. In this series, our Scottish barrister sleuth is on a roving commission to solve crimes in an array of destinations so it dilutes the language problem a little. He can say “och”, “verra” or something equally Scottish to remind us he’s got an accent and then carry on in standard English. Perhaps Ms Challinor should just have called him Hamish. Overall, the speech rhythms are good. I can “hear” English people talking like that. Now a few moans. In my pubby world, Guinness is not a beer, it’s a stout. But then, I’m eccentric and pedantic so all-comers can and should ignore what I say on the subject of ale. I was fascinated to find Rex’s lady, Helen, wearing a flannelette dressing gown in May. How practical of her. My grandmother used to wear flannelette. Finally, the idea of a well-off barrister, allegedly six foot four, folding himself into a Mini Cooper is remarkably down-market. Perhaps he doesn’t want to flaunt his higher status to other road users on his long and tiring commutes. With his income and at his age, he could afford something more comfortable for distance driving.
Putting these trivial points to one side, Murder of the Bride is a real success. The prose is lean and economical, the narrative structure is dynamic and the plot is ingenious. You can’t ask for more than that, no matter which side of the Atlantic you happen to prefer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When the Saints by Dave Duncan continues the story of the Brothers Magnus begun in Speak to the Devil and rather neatly brings what I take to be the first major narrative arc to a reasonably neat conclusion. In a sense, this book answers the criticisms I had of the first instalment by providing a much more coherent explanation of the way in which magical talents fit into the society as described. Although it’s a slight reach, I approve the explanation of why Joan of Arc could be burned at the stake. This gives us an excuse to suspend disbelief in our own history rather than have to work on accepting an alternate history. If we assume the same families continue to produce talents, we could have a rather pleasing conspiracy theory explanation for events in today’s world. It’s a shame we will probably never get to read this since, for the most part, Dave Duncan prefers to remain in the past (apart from the odd foray off-planet as in Pock’s World).
Anyway, back to the book as written. This is far better than the first on two counts. First, it disposes of the broader battle scenes quite quickly as young Wulf shows courage above and beyond the call both in defending Cardice and then in jaunting around to attack the supply chain. I don’t mind people hacking each other to bits but, after a few pages, it gets a bit repetitive and quite boring. Although I’ve come across fictional descriptions of military campaigns that did hold my interest, e.g. Ash by Mary Gentle, I more often flip through the battles to get to the political, economic and social content. So, not surprisingly, the second improvement is that, having apparently secured a major victory, we can then get into the politics and generalised explanations of the magical system. For these purposes, I’m prepared to accept the device of both Wulf and Madlenka having to learn fast on the hoof. Naturally, they both turn out to be inherently talented in their own ways and, with only a few hiccups, they are soon sailing along quite happily. Even difficult obstacles to their marriage are swept away. After all, they cannot mix in polite society unless their status is regularised. In Wulf’s case, his confidence is understandable because, as a brother born into a fighting family, he’s always been calm under pressure. Madlenka is slightly less credible. I’m all for the talented women having a more modern view of their world. Their abilities mean they cannot be bullied by the majority of men. As an “ordinary” woman born into a military family, I’m less sure Madlenka would have grown up quite as shown here. But this is a minor cavil. Both individually and as a team, the couple learn fast and are an even match for the more experienced people around them.
The underlying metaphors based on falconry are also rather pleasing. This blends into the political structure seamlessly. After all, for the untalented, there’s always the fear of betrayal and double-cross so there has to be a way of policing the relationships. It would never do if someone could renege on a contract of service. For example, suppose a bodyguard could be persuaded to look the other way. This would be bad for the victim and undermine the general reputation of the talented. It’s actually in everyone’s interests that there are enforceable limitations on what the talented can and cannot do with real enforcement powers available in the event of alleged misconduct. To his credit, Dave Duncan has followed the logic of his ideas and comes up with quite an interesting set of solutions. There has to be a balance of power between the different groups.
Not unnaturally, the heads of the various religions are in on the secret and have their own talented members on the payroll. This is the Middle Ages so Europe is a patchwork of small kingdoms and principalities which produces a large number of “rulers” who all want protection. Now add in an emerging merchant class that’s able to pay well for services rendered — assuming they are cute enough to work out that magic is real, of course. There’s a kind of independent guild that offers membership to non-aligned talents and, on the other side of the European borders, there are mirror organisations representing their interests. Think mutually assured destruction and, as between groups of states, there’s enough of a balance to ensure even large jurisdictional disputes can be judged impartially with enforcement action following.
Put all this together and you get a satisfying book with a well-designed magic system in a credible context. It would be interesting to see at least one more book exploring how Wulf and Madlenka get on in this rather different shadow world. I hope When the Saints sells well enough to justify TOR picking up a contract.
The jacket artwork by Matt Stawicki has good clean lines and captures the defence of Cardice rather nicely.
When the Saints was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award 2012.
As you will understand from the title, Ip Man 2 is a sequel following the loosely biographical story as Ip Man, also known as Yip Kai-Man, escapes from the mainland to Hong Kong. Those of you who know the history of this period will understand that some adjustments had to be made to the underlying story. The first Ip Man shows the eponymous hero in Foshan during the Second Sino-Japanese War which ended in 1945. This is untrue. He did not return to Foshan until after the Japanese had been expelled. Worse from the point of view of the Chinese authorities, he was a police officer and a loyal member of the Kuomintang. Once the Communists came to power, Ip Man retreated back to Hong Kong where he had spent some time as a teenager. All these political problems were glossed over in self-censorship by having Ip Man become a Chinese hero for beating the Japanese army’s martial arts expert. It’s then expedient for him to be carried, wounded, to Hong Kong at the beginning of this film.
As with the first film, this continues with the slightly deadpan Donnie Yen in the title role. The character of the man is shown as humble but with stubborn integrity, i.e. he would prefer never to have to fight to prove anything but, if push literally comes to shove, he will defend himself and the reputation of his fighting style. Much of the first part of the film is taken up with the politics of running a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Ip Man refuses to pay for membership of the local association which is apparently run by Master Hong Zhun-nam (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo) and Fatso (Kent Cheng). In fact, the whole system is front for a protection racket run by a corrupt senior officer in the police force. As a result of his refusal to pay, Ip Man’s “unauthorised” school is attacked and closed.
The narrative structure of this film is an almost exact copy of the first. We establish the character of the Ip Man. He faces a challenge that disrupts his quiet lifestyle. In the first, the Japanese arrive and desperate local thugs start a protection racket. In the final act, there’s a climatic fight with a reasonably villainous opponent. At this point, it’s interesting to compare both parts of the Ip Man story with Fearless (2006) in which Jet Li fights an honourable Japanese champion (Shidô Nakamura). I mention this film because Jet Li disposes of the giant Hercules O’Brian with little difficulty, i.e. the assumption of the film is that Chinese and, by implication, Japanese martial arts are inherently superior to Western boxing and wrestling skills. In Ip Man 2, there’s a big build-up to the fight with Twister (Darren Shahlavi). The obvious intention of the film is to demonise the colonial British. The police force is shown to be largely corrupt and expat entrepreneurs are milking the Chinese for their own profit. The character Twister is wonderfully melodramatic with bulging muscles, a giant ego and little in the brain department. Without exception, all the British in the local fight scene are portrayed as deeply racist, convinced of their innate superiority over the little yellow men. When Twister disrupts a demonstration of the different local styles of fighting, this provokes Master Hong into fighting. He knows he should not. As an asthmatic and older man, he can only fight at something approaching his best for a relatively short period of time. But he feels the honour of the Chinese way of fighting is at stake. He’s therefore prepared to sacrifice himself to prove the point (one way or the other).
In the first exchanges he’s equal to the British champion. But, as he tires, Twister starts to hit him at will. Rather than fall down and save himself, he holds the rope and is beaten to death. This brutal display is embarrassing to the British hierarchy who begin a cover-up, but Twister opens his mouth and issues another challenge. This time, Ip Man accepts. The fight is fairly remarkable because, unlike the earlier “exchange of pointers” between Ip Man and Master Hung which is dominated by fanciful wire work, this is a fight in which both combatants “obviously” hit (and kick) each other. In a relatively short space of time, Ip Man has been felled to the canvas and his face starts to swell with bruising. There’s no sanction when Twister hits Ip Man after the bell has gone and the judges instruct Ip Man that kicking is not allowed, i.e. the fight is being fixed. In a flurry of blows and changes in fighting style, most of which would be illegal under Western boxing rules, Twister is then beaten into insensibility. The fight event ends with an embarrassing “why can’t we just respect each other and get along” speech by the battered Ip Man. The British take a moment to think about how awfully bad they have been and then applaud the sentiment. Frankly, this doesn’t quite fit the plot. When the good guy batters the demon, some degree of triumphalism is expected. All that happens is that Ip Man jogs off to see his new-born baby. His wife played by Lynn Hung has been working on the baby behind the scenes while our hero trains for the fight. The happy couple then disappears back into semi-obscurity. With respect to the director, Wilson Yip, this is not quite the political and emotional pay-off we deserve. Although I concede it’s a nice touch to see him send the young Bruce Lee away at the end.
Unlike the first Ip Man which was more a solo vehicle, this gives fairly equal prominence to Sammo Hung who turns in a characteristically fine performance in acting, fighting and doing the fight choreography. Because Donnie Yen plays Ip Man as a rather gentle man (even prepared to run away if it becomes necessary), it’s somewhat low key to put against Sammo Hung except in their over-the-top fight when they both go at each other with something like full speed. Even though he’s getting old and experienced heart problems while filming, Sammo Hung is a delight to watch in full flow. Wilson Yip turns in a solid performance as director but I’m not sure he could decide what he wanted as the focus of the film. The first Ip Man is very much about the man who reluctantly agrees to teach his fighting style when the country starts to fall apart. The final fight to complete the demonisation of the Japanese is perfectly judged as the victorious Ip Man is shot in the back. That’s a real emotional pay-off. It should be said that the actual Japanese opponent was not wholly dishonourable, but he’s surrounded by people who are.
The sequel seems to be about demonising the colonial British, but it metaphorically pulls its punch at the end. It’s also less about the Wing Chun fighting style because the wire work takes a significant part what we see too far away from reality. A far more interesting approach would have been to show Ip Man and Master Hong learning from each other and developing the more sophisticated version of Wing Chun that would be passed on to Bruce Lee. The only redeeming feature is that, in the final fight, Ip Man is shown losing his aura of invincibility. He’s knocked down by a good fighter with very fast hands. Perhaps we should just see Ip Man as a modest hero doing nothing more than is necessary to prove his point and then waking away. Overall, Ip Man 2 is enjoyable but not as good as the first. I’m not surprised Donnie Yen refused to play the part again.
This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.
Well, after all the excitement of the civil war that wan’t, it’s time to bury the dead. Deokman (Lee Yo-Won) and her loyal supporters wave goodbye to King Jinpyeong (Jo Min-Gi), while the clan bemoans the loss of Mi-Sil (Ko Hyun-Jung). Except Seol Won (Jeon No-Min) is already nagging at Bi-Dam (Kim Nam-Gil) to aim for the throne. Before this can get too serious, Deokman decides to blame the rebellion on Chil-Sook (Ahn Kil-Kang) and Suk-Poom (Hong Kyoung-In), leaving the Mi-Sil clan free of obvious blame. All they have to do is surrender their weapons and lands, and swear allegiance to Silla. Deokman is castigated by her inner circle for being weak, but she prefers to try and recruit all the people of talent into her government. The rest she will watch. She appoints Bi-Dam as her watcher. He’s to lead a new secret police force, rooting out treason and corruption wherever it can be found. To help him, a special supervision board is established. This has Seol Won, Mi-Saeng (Jeong Woong-In), Bo-Jong (Baek Do-Bin), Ha-Jong (Kim Jung-Hyun) and Yum-Jong (Eom Hyo-Seop) as members. Mi-Saeng and the two boys are less than pleased when they discover Bi-Dam is the committee chair. Se-jong (Dok Ko Yeong Jae) retires to the countryside.
Deokman continues her policy of working with the people, rewarding those who turned waste land into farm land. She reasons she can build support if the people see the value of land ownership. This also means dismantling the Gayan threat. Although they seem to be integrating reasonably well at ground level, there’s a problem at the top. Now Bi-Dam wearing threatening black and sporting a slight beard, and Yum-Jong come into their own as the new secret service, investigating all threats to security. Wol-Ya (Joo Sang-Wook) is considered a major danger because he has refused to dismantle the Gayan underground. Unfortunately, he’s very close to Kim Yu-Sin (Uhm Tae-Woong) so a choice will have to be made by our loyal sidekick. Is he a Gayan or is he a Deokman man? Meanwhile, all the original members of Yu-Sin’s team have grown beards and are increasingly formidable in new armour. Even Ko-Do (Ryu Dam) has blossomed now Juk-bang (Lee Mun-Shik) has moved into a more advisory position with Kim Chun Chu (Yu Seung-Ho) and as a spy for Deokman. The army returns from a big campaign against one of the neighbouring states only to find some of their number being arrested by the Investigation Department. Tensions rise when Bi-Dam orders the arrest of Wol-Ya as the leader of the Gayan underground.
All this rather sidelines Deokman as Bi-Dam, egged on by Yum-Jong and Seol Won, sets an elegant trap for Yu-Sin to fall into. Our innocent but lovable lug is arrested and then “rescued” by the terrorists who want him to be King. Why can’t they leave him alone? He just wants to be loyal to Deokman. Such divisiveness between Bi-Dam and Yu-Sin, the left and right hands of government, could split the nobility and build a power base for Bi-Dam just in case he decides he’d like a year or so as King. Stuck in the middle, Deokman fumes, but must wait for Yu-Sin to pull himself out of the pit. Fortunately, the honourable guy walks back into the palace and surrenders himself to whatever punishment is coming his way. Deokman stands in front of the nobles and exiles him. She invites Bi-Dam to assist the reoganisation exercise made necessary by Yu-Sin’s departure but, once she has all the names of those supporting Bi-Dam and the rump of Mi-Sil’s family, they are rejected. Indeed, Bi-Dam is demoted, now reporting to Chun Chu rather than to Deokman directly. She also tells him she will never marry, so he can forget any idea he might have had about become King through marriage. That’s wiped the smile from his face.
Once he’s out of the capital, the guards hand Yu-Sin a secret message from Deokman. He’s to infiltrate Baekje, the neighbouring state, and steal all its military secrets. Our hero just squares his jaw and sets off with a couple of hench people in tow. They almost have all the secret plans in their hands when they are unmasked. About to be killed, they are rescued by Wol-Ya and his men who are protecting their investment in the next King of Silla. Except, after the rescue, Yu-Sin finally convinces the rebels he will never fulfill their dreams. Instead, he lectures them that they should give up the rebellion and fight for Silla. They stomp off in despair. Messages are sent back to Deokman that a well-placed spy is going to open the gates to one of the key defensive strongholds. But, on his way back to offer more details, Yu-Sin is captured by Bo-jong who’s floating around the countryside spying for Bi-Dam. Unfortunately for Bi-Dam, Deokman is hailing Yu-Sin’s contribution to the war effort and our spy master has lost momentum. Now the race is on to save the stronghold.
Except one key part of Yu-Sin’s evidence turns out to be a misinterpretation of the name of the spy and therefore he’s discredited. Only a relatively small force is left to defend the fortress and, when the gates are thrown open and a fire set in the granary, the Baekje forces walk in. Now who’s to lead the army? Bi-Dam recommends Seol Won. Unfortunately, the old guy is not up-to-date with military tactics and has an undeclared heart problem. His troops get beaten back. Now Juk-Bang steps up and organises a meeting between Deokman, Chun Chu and Wol-Ya. The idea is to buy their co-operation by destroying all the evidence of Gayan ancestry. That way no-one will be able to tell Sillan from Gayan and it will end the threat of discrimination. Meanwhile, Yu-Sin is increasingly upset that the enemy is advancing. He begs Bi-Dam to be allowed to do something about it. After he has saved Silla, Bi-Dam can kill him if that’s what he wants. When Seol Won dies of a heart attack, Bi-Dam is out of options. I’m sad to see Seol Won go. He was always the calm, quiet one sitting beside Mi-Sil but he, more than any of the others, had keen intelligence and could actually help her assess strategy. Literally, she would not have survived were it not for his loyalty. In his own terms, his motives for helping Bi-Dam are legitimate in advancing the Mi-Sil cause. More importantly, he’s also quick to step forward in defence of Silla. Whatever his faults, he remains a loyal patriot, a real man of talent.
After the Apocalypse by Maureen F McHugh (Small Beer Press, 2011) is a relatively slim collection of nine stories, three of them original to the book. As the title suggests, they are all, whether directly or indirectly, about the effects of apocalyptic events. As always, therefore, we have to establish the ground rules for discussing the content. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the world going through a major disaster. In Biblical terms, we’re predisposed to anticipate the end of the world as we know it. Events like the flood and Noah’s survival are just God flexing his muscles and getting ready for the big day when the trumpets sound. Hence, The Drowned World by J G Ballard has an early version of global warming triggered by the arrival of solar flares that melt the ice-caps. The interesting feature of the three Ballard catastrophe novels is that, in a sense, the nature of the catastrophe is not really the issue. The focus is on what happens to the people after the event. Indeed, many of the early books like The Scarlet Plague by Jack London are set decades after the disaster. In other words, the better books and stories deliberately limit their scope to just a small group of survivors and describe how, if at all, the devastated world is healing itself. It’s largely left to Hollywood to show people living up to and then through the disasters. Film studios think we’ll pay to see the best in CGI as excessive levels of water, ice or seismic action bring down civilisation.
The second factor is the credibility of the disaster. One of the most common sources of population loss is a plague, whether of a natural variety as in Earth Abides by George R Stewart or a genetically modified version as in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s impossible to emerge from the education process without being aware of the Black Death. Some may even have heard of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Such events are an indelible part of out culture and, alongside the paranoia about nuclear war, fit into our concept of “end of the world” scenarios. I’m also not unhappy with technological disasters, e.g. the current series by John Barnes starts with Directive 51 in which terrorists release nano and bioswarms to eat the plastic essential to support current technology, but I get a bit twitchy when aliens invade and blast us into submission or, worse, zombies inexplicably emerge and start snacking on us. I prefer the survivors I read about to be in situations that might actually occur. As against this, I suppose in wars it makes no real difference whether the enemy is human, dead or extraterrestrial. Destruction is destruction no matter what the cause. But the more unnatural the source of the disaster, the less happy I am. The point of the story should be to hold up a metaphorical disaster mirror so we can see a part of ourselves reflected in it — a part we don’t often get the chance to see.
The first story in this collection, “The Naturalist” is a zombie plague and the point seems to be that, if you put a sociopathic killer in an area with a small number of zombies, he’s likely to experiment to quantify the risks he faces. While the application of the scientific method is not uninteresting, we get no greater insights than they act not unlike hunting animals. The fictional courts then decide the use of zombies to thin out the prison population is a cruel and unusual punishment, and our “hero” is almost literally pulled out of the area before he has a chance to reach any firm conclusions on what makes zombies tick. So, apart from the writing which is beautiful to read, this says little about zombies and even less about the human condition. “Special Economics” has us in China after bird flu has thinned the population. A girl with some education from the provinces gets a job in a factory only to discover it operates a company store system. By charging employees for accommodation and everything they eat and wear, the employer ensures they stay in debt. Fines for poor performance ensure no-one ever pays off the debt. Corrupt police track down anyone who runs away. It’s a trap for the unwary straight from Victorian times when the exploitation of labour was the norm. There’s little originality in the idea but the execution is highly readable as a form of capitalism unexpectedly raises its head.
“Useless Things” first appeared in Eclipse Three and has the world moving north to avoid the water shortages. The few who remain are either stubborn Libertarians who refuse to move as a matter of principle and those who can afford to buy the water. This produces cultural instability as the transients grow more desperate and threatening. Our heroine has carved a niche for herself making dolls. In the cities there are still people rich enough to pay top dollar for specialty products. To improve her chances of survival, she branches out into dildos, but sales are slow. As local society seems to be disintegrating around her, self-confidence ebbs away and, in the end, she acquires a gun for protection. Sadly, her two dogs are not enough of a deterrent to thieves. Perhaps she will have to give up her home and live in her car. It’s desperately sad as the physical and emotional infrastructure of her life falls to pieces. Equally sad is “The Lost Boy, A Reporter At Large”. This is written in the style of a long magazine article about a case of dissociative fugue. It affects a young man who wanders off after two dirty bombs explode in the Baltimore area. Not unnaturally, this is a chaotic event with long-term repercussions as the radioactivity causes different forms of cancer in those exposed. Although our boy is never in physical danger, he prefers the life he makes for himself in a new town. Even when his family find him and, with less than enthusiasm, he admits to remembering the life he used to have, there’s always the sense that his life is fractured. Like the now empty city of Baltimore, he can’t reconcile what he was with what he’s become. Thematically, this carries over into “The Kingdom of the Blind” where an increasingly complex computer system may be developing some degree of awareness. A programmer speculates the system is testing its ability to interact with its environment. Since this will cause chaos if it becomes more frequent, the IT team decide to reload from an old archive copy. If it is aware, this will be apocalyptic to the machine. The most interesting part of the story is the relationship between the female programmer and the men around her. This is very nicely observed and probably true more often than not.
“Going to France” is only faintly apocalyptic in the sense that, should the migration grow and persist, America would be left relatively empty and France would be overcrowded. But what makes it unusual is the fantasy element of people actually able to fly. This rather takes it out of our theme unless the first wave are angels with an obsession for things Gallic. Then we’re back to an apocalypse on a purely personal level. Just as a computer intelligence might be swept away in a reload, so “Honeymoon” sees the destruction of dreams on an epic level. Every girl knows how she wants her wedding to run and, if something derails her plans, this is devastating. Thereafter it becomes a slightly humdrum story of making money out of medical trials, not all of which are as safe as we would hope them to be. “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” has society collapsing as a disease similar to Mad Cow spreads rather rapidly, people dying within five years. In the face of such uncertainty, it’s not easy to maintain relationships. Even families may not be able to take the strain of looking after parents as their mental faculties disintegrate. After all, it’s not as if relatives actually like each other. This is a powerful and affecting story. Finally, “After the Apocalypse” poses a slightly different question. The relationship between a mother and daughter may be protective out of habit and, if a man appears and is able to offer some support, then the mother will be properly grateful. But suppose she can escape to a better life. Would she abandon them? And, if she would, does this say something about the state of the family as an institution and perhaps partly explain why society might break down so quickly when some bombs explode?
All of these stories are written in a lean and muscular prose that’s a delight to read. The majority are as good as you will find in the post-apocalypse market and, when you put the two together, After the Apocalypse is terrific value for money.
After the Apocalypse has been nominated as Best Single-Author Collection in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards and was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Collection.