Well, after an unexpectedly long delay, aggravated by my need to spend several months in weight training to be able to handle another brick of a book, here we go with Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 2) by Patrick Rothfuss. The story is easy to capture. As if we have not already spent long enough in the University of Magical Lore, we start off and end there. In the extended middle section, Kvothe finds it expedient to disappear from the public’s view, so he goes off to a relatively distant land where he saves the life of a powerful man, pretends he’s playing the lead in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, leads a fractious team of mercenaries in pursuit of bandits, spends a year or so with a succubus fairy, and learns to fight (which may prove useful). As if that’s not enough, he murders nine people in cold blood and generally does enough to enhance his reputation as Kvothe the Arcane, a person of myth whose truth is woven out of fantasy.
There are two basic changes from the first book (ignoring the increase in length from 672 to 994 pages). The first is that the language, while remaining of high quality, has lost some of the poetry-as-prose feel that gave the first volume such a distinctive edge. This is slightly more functional with the author preferring to get the job done with more economy of style. The second is a significant increase in the complexity of the plot. You can see the basics of the story as a tale of revenge. Having watched his parents murdered and then, to some extent, recovered from the trauma, Kvothe has been on the trail of those responsible. In a way, everything that has happened to him in these two volumes has been a kind of preparation for what is likely to be a reckoning in the third and final volume (whenever that appears). Since Kvothe has been overcome by fatalism and is waiting to die, we may be tempted to assume he’s not exactly brimming with confidence. But, if we revert to my earlier thoughts about his status as an unreliable narrator, this could be a ploy to bring the Chandrian to him.
There are notable developments and continuing absences. As a character, we’re allowed to see Kvothe slowly losing some of his underlying naiveté, particularly in his dealings with women, and generally coming to a better understanding of how the world works. If I wanted to be dismissive, I could call this an extended coming-of-age story, but the increasing darkness of the story militates against this. In a way, the trauma he suffered as a child taints his world view. He could have become hypervigilant, trembling in fright at the thought of more supernatural violence directed his way. Instead, he becomes a magician and, despite the arrogance of youth, finally begins to understand what the learning process is all about. There are, however, some significant absences. Although we briefly catch sight of one of the Chandrian, there’s no direct progress in tracking them. His efforts to gather information indirectly do lead to a more general mystery that historical records relating to the Amyr seem to have been tampered with. Presumably we will get an explanation of why so many records should have been purged or changed in the concluding volume. Then there’s the continuing mystery of why this trilogy should be called The Kingkiller Chronicle. Under the conventional rules of fantasy, our hero joins the court and meets the King. In due course, for noble or other reasons, the killing follows. Except most of the action in this series to date has been firmly rooted in the university, its staff and students. So perhaps Ambrose will be promoted to King in the final volume. At this point, he’s the only one who obviously deserves to be killed.
The one bright spark is the meeting with the Cthaeh. This seems to be changing the nature of the plot from simple revenge to a more general meditation on determinism. In part, this would explain Kvothe’s current passivity. Although it’s inherently a choice to do as little as possible, the fact of few choices makes it less likely there will he bad outcomes. Yes, the world around him does appear to be in a declining state but he may not be the cause of this effect. In this, I suspect Auri’s role will become highly significant. It follows from where she lives and where another door can be found.
My final thoughts revolve around an increasing thematic repetitiveness. Let’s assume for a moment that the way in which you do magic in this world is by achieving a kind of mental state in which the two parts of the mind grow closer together. For these purposes, we can dispense with clever Freudian notions of the trinity, id, ego and super-ego, and merely focus on the idea of mental life as depending on the conscious and unconscious. If I asked you which individual muscles you use to move your body, you could not begin to tell me. But if you decided to stand up, the conscious decision would be executed by all those unknown muscles. It’s the body moving in response to your generalised wishes. So when it comes to magic, you need to learn which muscles to move to achieve the desired magical effects. A baby learns how to walk, i.e. forges the autonomic link between mind and body. Similarly, a magician has to learn which mental processes affect the world around him or her. This is not something that can be taught. That’s why Elodin appears frustrating in not simply “telling” his students what to do. People with ability have to learn how to do it when no-one can actually tell them what “it” is. Describing it as a naming process is as meaningless as saying you have to have a heightened form of awareness in which you see beyond superficial reality, capture the ideas about what your senses detect, and develop means of interacting with the newly perceived reality to change its state in some practical way. So a baby may learn to crawl across a flat surface, but will require completely different sets of perceptual and autonomic controls to walk down a flight of steps without falling.
So Kvothe has to begin developing the strength of his Alar, while trying to wake his sleeping mind, while naming things, while understanding the nature of danger with Felurian, while expressing the Lethani as a Ketan and entering the Spinning Leaf. All these are separately described, but they are inevitably the same mental process using different words and in different contexts. Hence, it’s repetitive.
Frankly, I think Patrick Rothfus is demonstrating a significant ego to the detriment of his ability to deliver a simple story in the most elegant possible way. Someone somewhere in the publishing house should have taken an axe to large chunks of this text and cut it down to something more manageable. Alternatively, it should have been sold as two separate volumes. This is a ludicrous length, bedevilled by thematic repetitions and burdened by the emotional struggles of a callow youth. That said, I did read Wise Man’s Fear to the end. In other words there’s just enough about the language used and the development of the plot to keep me interested but, for me, the gloss has rubbed off this young author’s reputation and he’s going to drop into obscurity if he continues to churn out overwritten content like this. Nevertheless, this book was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
For my review of the first volume, see: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, Day 1) by Patrick Rothfuss.
For the record, Wise Man’s Fear won the 2012 Legend Award for Best Novel.
The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991) as produced by Granada Television is from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Season 1, episode 1) which, in publication terms, represents the final twelve short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring our famous detective. In total, Granda adapted some forty-two of the Holmes stories into thirty-six episodes. More would probably have been made had Jeremy Brett not fallen seriously ill. When he died, the series was ended. The actor had rather made the role his own and although it was possible to recast Dr Watson (David Burke was replaced by Edward Hardwicke), it was not thought appropriate to recast Holmes for the remaining stories.
There are times when an original short story can be enhanced when adapted for the screen and, on this occasion, T R Bowen has produced a dark and quite powerful adventure on a limited budget. To understand the scale of the problem arising from the story as written, it has Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett) too busy to leave London so, when Lady Carfax is reported missing in Switzerland, he sends out Dr Watson (Edward Hardwicke) to investigate. Initially, this is an honest decision and not a smokescreen as in The Hound of the Baskervilles. As a result of his inquiries, he follows the trail to Baden but there’s no sign of her after that. In fact, Watson’s regular reports have alarmed Holmes who arrives in time to save Watson’s life — a rather tedious piece of melodrama. Together, they return to London and, for the most part, the television script follows the original plot. To shoot period railway scenes and a Channel crossing to show Watson’s adventure in Switzerland and Germany would be an unnecessary expense. The actual location for her disappearance is irrelevant so long as the right people are present at the time. Hence, the decision was made to focus the main location work in the Lake District around Applethwaite which, if nothing else, is wonderfully picturesque and a suitable place for Dr Watson to be having a holiday. He’s been feeling the pain in his leg and shoulder, and finds fell-walking a good therapy.
This gives us a chance to meet and be impressed by Lady Frances Carfax (Cheryl Campbell) who’s shown to be physically active and very daring for a woman of that time. The point of this is, of course, to build up our sympathy for her. To add fuel to this fire, for all the bravado, she’s shown to be vulnerable. She sails across the lake to the church without a problem, but falls in when coming back to the hotel. Note the voiceover from Watson commenting on the upper body strength of Albert Shlessinger (Julian Curry) who rescues her. No questions about his ears, it seems. She’s also shown bullied by her brother and apparently threatened by the clichéd dark, bearded man on a horse. All this is reasonably within bounds. We know from the title she will disappear so it’s as well we invest our emotions in her safety. Quite why Victorian and Edwardian women should inexplicably fear glowering men on horses has never been satisfactorily explained to me. I suppose it must be in their DNA. We then have an additional fear reaction when she runs from Sherlock Holmes in the London bank. This is an unnecessary scene. Worse, even in those days, there would be no unlocked backdoor through which she could leave. It would be impossible for her to avoid Sherlock Holmes or the inevitable security guards.
I suppose the backstory of the woman being lost at sea and the subsequent headlines in London newspapers does give a plausible reason for her to panic when she sees cuttings in her temporary London home and so force the hand of those who have lured her to London. The pawning of some jewellery and the viewing of the coffin are also nicely handled. However, what marks this dramatisation out as being something rather more interesting is the ending. Arthur Conan Doyle has Lady Carfax recover from her ordeal. T R Bowen prefers greater realism and her Edgar Allan Poe experience leaves her in a psychologically damaged state. This is brave and probably justified. It gives much greater weight to Sherlock Holmes considering this case to be one of his failures. So put all this together and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax is a winning way to start this series.
For reviews of the series, see:
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (1991)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: The Problem of Thor Bridge (1991)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: Shoscombe Old Place (1991)
Well here come the reviews I’ve been delaying. When I organised the pile of arrivals some months ago, I carefully left the three big books to read at the end. Well, actually, that’s not quite right. Only two of the books are relatively big. The third is a monster. We’ll get to that as and when, and then start on the new pile. So with my fallible memory, I confess beginning the onslaught on A Dance With Dragons by George R R Martin (Volume 5 of Song of Ice and Fire) without any clear recollection of what had been happening in the preceding four volumes. Recently watching the HBO serialisation of A Game of Thrones helped a lot. It recaptured some memories of who all the main players are. But reading through this, I kept stopping to wonder if I was supposed to remember who this or that character is. It’s all a bit daunting and not a little frustrating to an old guy like me. More importantly, it highlighted a major truth. If you haven’t read any of the other books, you’ll be completely lost if you start with this. I struggled and I have read the others.
To that extent, I think there’s a major problem with the way this particular book has been published. There should be a summary for the forgetful or the merely curious who are picking this up on the back of the HBO television serialisation. Then I think a strong-minded editor should have hacked into this chunk of prose and aimed to produce a narrative that could stand more effectively on its own. Not everyone keeps a card-index system by his side when reading, so while this latest volume may appeal to the geekishly inclined, something shorter and with better internal explanations would be better. Further, I think the pacing could be improved. I know it’s difficult when you have single point-of-view chapters in a rotational pattern but, often, it’s hard to see why some bits are included in this volume. Structurally, it would have been better to publish three separate books dealing with events at the Wall, the continuing Westeros wars, and the plotting affecting the characters who find themselves in Valyria. That way, we could have maintained continuity and built up a more dynamic narrative.
Anyway, there’s no sense in complaining about how long it’s taken to get us to this point and whether publication should have been further delayed by a major editing exercise. We must deal with what we have. This starts off with Stannis still at the Wall which is causing serious problems for Jon Snow. As the new Commander, he’s doing his best to maintain the neutrality of the Night’s Watch while feeding not only the Watch and the King’s men, but also all the Wildlings who have accepted the offer of sanctuary on the “safe” side of the Wall. Daenerys is marginally in control of the city of Meereen and even less in control of the dragons. Tyrion Lannister is still struggling with the guilt of killing his father while vaguely making his way in the general direction of Daenerys. And then there’s the continuing fighting in the so-called War of the Five Kings, made more interesting as Aegon unexpectedly appears with the Golden Company and finds an opportunity for seizing the initiative. In 959 a lot of stuff happens confirming what we might call the epic pretensions of this series. Not that going for epic is inherently a bad thing. It’s just that even holding the damn book for any length of time is tiring let alone trying to remember who everyone is and what side they’re supposed to be on. So instead of waiting six years for a blockbuster (and a further few months before I got round to reading it), I would prefer to reduce the size of the instalments and increase their frequency. Two-hundred-and-fifty pages a year will do nicely for me.
Some people make comparisons with Tolkien so I’d better clear the air and say I found sections of The Lord of the Rings genuinely tedious in their attention to detail. Distilled down to their essence, there’s a good story spanning the three books based on the fellowship of a few, but the execution would have been improved by editing down all that mass of background material. For them as is interested, there can be a Tolkien companion volume (or two) to fill in all the gaps. George Martin goes to the opposite extreme with a small army of people to keep track of and multiple plot threads to follow. If I had to pick a more appropriate model, I would say he’s Dickensian in ambition, trying to capture all life in a fantasy world in a few thousand pages. Whereas Tolkien was a gentleman of academic inclination finding a way to capture his sense of the debate between good and evil, and the use of war as a means of settling the argument, George Martin is less interested in the civilised point of view, preferring to mix in with the guys at the sharp end and capture a sense of what it’s like when the shit hits the fan.
So while it’s good to meet up with Tyrion again, it’s getting a little repetitive as he’s thrust into containers of varying sizes and carted around without having a great deal of say in the direction of travel. He’s back to being reactive and in survival mode while trying to recover peace of mind. Yes, it’s always going to be a challenge to adjust to the reality of patricide, but this section of the narrative is much less fun. We’ve seen its like before in the sky cell and comparable situations. Jon Snow remains interesting although the politicking is sometimes on the verge of boring. I was pleased to see Arya making progress and Cersei Lannister gets something of a reality check. Bran’s development is fascinating. But, to be honest, a lot of the stuff that happens feels rather like it’s marking time. The whole section in Meereen, for example, doesn’t seem to be advancing us very far and all the Dornish material is genuinely boring. Overall, I kept hoping for a major battle or some large scale catastrophe, but I suppose that’s all being kept back for the last two episodes.
Overall, there are one or two nice moments of humour but the entire experience is like wading through a swamp. Although I’ll read what I sincerely hope will be the final two volumes (I’m curious to see how it all does fit together), A Dance With Dragons is not the exciting epic I was hoping for. That said, it has won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
For thoughts on the television serial, see Game of Thrones.
For reviews of the anthologies George R R Martin has edited with Gardner Dozois, see:
Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
Songs of Love and Death
Lost in Austen (2008) is yet another television version of a fairly respectable literary idea, namely that a human being can transition into the pages of a book and become involved in the action. One of the most interesting and inventive versions of this trope are the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde in which, through the use of a Prose Portal, characters can enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. The first is called The Eyre Affair and, not surprisingly involves Jane Eyre, some of Wordsworth’s poetry and Poe’s “The Raven”. If you enjoy literary fantasy, the six novels in this series are well worth reading (with another due in a couple of months). The thematic opposite is represented by books like the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke. In these books, fictional characters are released from their books into “our” world. Handled well, such books, films and television episodes are entertaining because they allow a completely different view of well-known texts. The problem comes with a phenomenon now called Mary Sue or Gary Stu stories.
Many writers of what’s pejoratively known as “fan-fiction” imagine what it would be like to meet and interact with the characters in their favorite movie, TV show, book, comic, or video game. The trap most fall into is to make their treasured character so perfect, he or she becomes a figure of fun. Hence all the other characters are in awe of Mary Sue, believing everything she says or does yet further examples of her brilliance. She’s brave and never outfaced in difficult situations. On occasion, this will make her appear stubborn, but she never pays a price for failing to live up to everyone’s expectations. She just wins the day (again) and goes on as if nothing untoward has happened. Fortunately, the heroine in this serial comes with warts.
Let’s meet Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) a modern fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She smokes, drinks, has a lover and generally acts like a contemporary woman. Her fairly mundane life is disrupted when a doorway opens in her bathroom. Much to her surprise Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) steps through. After some discussion, Amanda steps back through into the Bennet household, circa 1813. Even though she’s not been formally introduced, she’s accepted as Elizabeth’s friend just as Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) arrives next door. This gives her the chance to experience Jane Austen’s story from the ground up, as it were.
There are occasional moments when the humour works as our fish-out-of-water runs into mere incomprehension or actual hostility from the prevailing culture. But the jokes are repetitive. The first time our heroine blurts out some naff contemporary slang, we can smile at the incongruity. But the desperation with which jumbo jet jokes keep flying round the ballroom grows rapidly tiresome. The real problem is Guy Andrews, the scriptwriter, can’t decide what point is to be made. It could be a rewrite of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which satire prevails on both sides of reality to amuse and divert us. Or it could be an entirely serious affair in which a character suddenly finds herself in an incongruous position and has to decide exactly how to survive. For, make no mistake about it, if the Bennets were real, they would throw Amanda out and watch her die without contemporary money or friends to rescue her. This approach most often comes in time-travel stories like “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson where a modern man is transported back to a 10th century Viking village and quickly killed in a blood feud because he has no idea how to behave. This serial offers us an entirely contrived situation in which our heroine is allowed to rewrite the book by her inappropriate behaviour.
That said, Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful and Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) is delightfully knowing and rather likeable. Mr Bingham is even more craven than anyone could have imagined and Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) is nicely snooty. The tendency of our heroine to drown her sorrows in too much alcohol, grab a fag when things go badly and rescue Jane Bennet with a quick paracetamol are very much of our time.
Now let’s get to the meat of the problem. What’s happening to the book in the “real world”? As our heroine is inserted into the story and begins to distort events, does this change all the words on the pages of already published books? Logic must be carried through. If the printed pages are not changing, why is this a purely personal experience? This is not the same question of how the exchange takes place, but limited to its consequences. To add to this problem, we then get the ultimate metafictional event. Having carried a copy of the book with her into the book, she throws it out of a window and Mr Darcy reads a part of it. He makes no mention of the fact the binding and paper quality is radically different to what would be achieved at that time. He simply accuses our hero of being Jane Austen who has apparently written a book about people without their consent. This makes absolutely no sense. Is he assuming our heroine wrote this before they met, i.e. it is fiction using their names? If so, how does it come to contain details of events only after they have met and where did she get the information about everyone’s income and background history? If it was only written after their first meeting, how has the book been written, typeset using the old hot lead system, printed and distributed in mass market paperback format within the space of a few weeks? This kind of sloppy writing just annoys.
It then gets even worse as first our heroine and then Darcy cross into modern London, then pick up Elizabeth who seems to have adapted well, and all three drop back into the Bennet home. Frankly, this is growing progressively more bizarre. I was prepared to accept a random door opening between Amanda’s bathroom and the Bennet home. It’s just a case of the right pair of women being in the right place at the right time for it to work. But a second door opening from one of those blue portacabin loos you see on street corners into a fictional world is just too much to stomach. Just what are the rules for these portals to keep appearing? Who can use them? Does their use show up in the published book? Frankly, what little possible logic might be suggested is completely abandoned for effect. This is just treating the audience with contempt. In fact, the Bennet story had grown more interesting with Bingham spending the night with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) in the bedroom of an inn and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) injuring himself in a duel to defend his family’s besmirched honour. It was all lining up to be an interesting mayhem when it all dies down. Elizabeth goes back to her new life in London (although how she will survive without a documented identity is anyone’s guess), Jane (Morven Christie) will get her marriage with Mr Collins annulled and elope with Mr Bingley to America, our heroine gets Darcy but, presumably, is left to honour all the promises she made to rescue the Bennets from the entail trap, and Mr Wickham is left to pursue Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole).
So Lost in Austen ends up neither science fiction nor fantasy. Worse, it avoids any real attempt at satire. It’s a weak-kneed collection of jokes that don’t mesh together into a coherent narrative. Austen purists will be outraged their favourite book has been pillaged. I was deeply disappointed and not a little annoyed as the serial progressed because Guy Andrews refuses to show any logic or self-discipline in the screenplay. Frankly, I can’t see anyone getting much enjoyment out of this.
City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton follows on from Nights of Villjamur as the second in the Legends of the Red Sun trilogy. I suppose I should start off with the good news. Most of the time, the prose is more readable than in the first book. This is a welcome relief. What was heavy going and distracting, has now become slightly less idiosyncratic and more accessible. There were still moments when I paused at word choices and sentence constructions. I suppose that’s inevitable when there’s a big cultural gap between a young author and an old reader like me. For example, we have someone committed to establishing a fantasy milieu and making vocabulary choices to create a dark and foreboding city as a central character in the plot. So would there really be someone assiduously picking his teeth while running through the night streets? Personally, I would have thought most frightened men focus on avoiding death without worrying about losing finer points of etiquette for dental hygiene. Does a guard “tromp”, do men “neck” their drinks? It’s difficult to avoid flinching when you see slangy usages suddenly leaping out from the page. Similarly, we still have all the same choppiness of a highly episodic narrative structure with multiple points of view but, as a story-telling exercise, this is a major improvement on the first volume. However, the problems with the content remain.
Let’s quickly summarise where we start. We’re in Villiren with Brynd Lathrea doing his very best to undermine the credibility of his own command before he has a chance to draw his sword in anger. Investigator Rumex Jeryd and his wife Marysa are just starting to make a home for themselves in a city where the political situation is only superficially described and the gangs seem to have free rein. The main administrator is the shadowy Portreeve Lutto whom we’re never really allowed to see too much of. He’s presented as the usual corrupt city leader whose main purpose seems to be the destruction of the trade unions so that local businessmen can make more profit by paying their workers less. It’s actually rather depressing for something so simplistic to be introduced and not properly developed. Worse, the distant Emperor has sent Voland with a mission to keep the city well-fed. Instead of using his talents to create large hybrid meat animals, he proceeds to surreptitiously slaughter several thousand inhabitants and dispose of their bodies into the food chain. When it comes to distribution, he finds able support from Malum who leads a gang of vampire-like creatures. Add in various assorted cultists and soldiers from the Night Guard and that captures the city. On their way, but not quite arriving in time to do much to defend the city, is Randur leading the imperial sisters, Eir and Rika, across the broken landscape between the cities.
With the help of his new assistant, Nanzi, Jeryd starts off to investigate the disappearances. Frankly, he shows himself not very bright and, although he does eventually crack the case, the point of this narrative thread is not to solve the crime. In fact two quite different purposes are in evidence. First, there’s a supposedly dark theme running through the book of people with magical abilities being able to manipulate human flesh. So this is an excuse to pick and mix all the horror clichéd human and animal blends. Secondly, when the alien invaders push on from their interdimensional bridgehead, there will be a need for a skillful doctor to patch up the fallen defenders and lots of exciting creatures to set loose on these poor unsuspecting aliens.
Perhaps I’m just getting old and bad tempered, but I found the handling of the gay theme embarrassingly bad. Surely we’ve reached the point in a newish century when we can discuss virulent homophobia in at least neutral, if not positively condemnatory, terms. Frankly, I’m not at all certain that Mark Charan Newton disapproves the behaviour of some of the judgmental characters who would rather see the city fall than allow it to be saved by a gay man. And then we come to the completely clunky thread. Our trio escaping from the first novel’s turn of events proves only to be a vehicle for literally introducing our dea ex machina. Well, if I had been complaining there was no explanation of what was happening, I need complain no more. We have a major infodump dropped into our laps. It all makes perfect sense now — sorry, my comedy reflex is kicking in — leaving me even more confused than before I started.
I’m not a purist and don’t mind mixing science fiction with fantasy, but there comes a point when the author has to get serious and start applying consistent rules to what everyone can and cannot do. We start off with seemingly random powers being displayed by cultists and other magic wielders. Then we have the folk who play with old technology and apparently build their own modern versions of these relics. Now we have aliens who can open doors between dimensions and communicate with each other telepathically so long as the doors are open. Our new heroine controls a vast airship, presumably exploiting antigravity, but still gets into the thick of things with her swords. It seems there are multiple worlds to explore and races to put names to. It’s easy to understand why this has grown into a three book series and counting but, frankly, I don’t think I can be bothered to read any more. I really don’t care enough what happens to any of this motley crew. It’s all being made up on the hoof. If our city is losing, someone comes up with a quick fix to get a respite. The enemy regroups. Well, here’s something else we just thought of. There’s no foundation laid for any of the major things we see. It’s just one rabbit pulled out of the hat after another. This is not to deny the author is inventive and reasonably creative. But unless creativity is underpinned by a basic discipline, it all goes to waste.
So that’s it for me. I will not be reading on beyond City of Ruin. But if you want to see how the story of multiple invasions into a prime dimension plays out, the next book is called The Book of Transformations.
Here’s my review of Nights of Villjamur.
The Killer Wolf or Howling (2012) is based on the novel The Hunter by Japanese writer Asa Nonami (OUP, 2006). It’s A Detective Takako Otomichi Mystery and it won the Naoki prize in 1996. As a novel, I could be unkind and say it’s a bit like Cagney & Lacy investigate Cujo, i.e. it features an indomitable woman detective facing appalling sexism from her police colleagues and superiors while investigating a weird and wonderful crime that morphs into a death-by-dog story. Or I could compare it to Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich which is an equally wonderful story exploiting the presence of a dangerous animal (creditably adapted as Leopard Man by Val Lewton). Either way, the Japanese novel is a very interesting read, albeit that the translation is slightly heavy going, and this film makes an honest effort at reproducing it on the screen.
Courtesy of director Han Yo, we now find the novel relocated to Korea with Cha Eun-Young (Na-yeong Lee finally putting The Fugitive: Plan B behind her), a young female police officer, promoted from the motorcycle patrol unit to detective. Courtesy of the Chief Detective (Jeong-geun Sin), she’s teamed up with Sang-gil Jo (Kang-ho Song). He’s the usual older detective who only needs one big case to score a promotion to captain of detectives. Unfortunately, he has three problems. He’s not that bright, preferring to bend the rules with threats and violence to extract information from reluctant sources. He’s a loner. And he’s deeply sexist and doubly prefers to work alone if the person he’s supposed to partner is a woman. So you can imagine his joy when he’s told to take the case of what looks like a very unusual suicide. He can’t see this as promotion material and resents the presence of Cha Eun-Young.
Now two words about the set-up. The death they are to investigate proves to be one of these hang-on-a-minute, the-murder-weapon-is-a-what? type of case. (My apologies for producing such a long compound adjective.) This is a death-by-belt case and, even by my standards, one of the more unusual methods I’ve seen or read. Anyway, once we’ve established the cause of death, the only other interesting feature of the body is that the deceased had recently been bitten by a large canine. The second slight problem is a completely unresolved issue between Sang-gil Jo and his son (Min-ho Lee) that flashes across the screen and is never mentioned again. It’s hard to see why the director bothered because nothing in the senior detective’s subsequent behaviour seems to be affected by this confrontation.
Now all the good things about this film. No! my apologies. That’s the wrong way round. It’s quicker and easier to tell you what’s wrong with it. Actually, there’s very little wrong with it. The only two problems lie in the mawkish sentimentality that develops in the relationship between Cha Eun-Young and the wolf-dog, and the interminable time she follows the dog on her motorbike. Were it not for these blemishes, it would be an excellent film. As it is, the result is only very good. So why is it so good? The answer lies in the performance of Na-yeong Lee.
For a moment, I need to go back to the execrable The Fugitive: Plan B. Although the script was dire, she never lost her dignity. She deserved better. This script offers her the chance to show us what she can do as an actress, and she gives what can only be described as an understated and restrained performance. As many other films and television series have repeatedly shown, both Japan and Korea are deeply sexist. This is a woman who dares trespass into an essentially male territory. No matter that she has exceptional investigative skills, her very presence is offensive to the other members of the team. Indeed, she’s hard to ignore simply because she shows them up as less competent. So they want her to keep a very low profile. When she refuses and is injured in the line of duty, they try to hold her in the office. When she follows her senior’s solo line, the Chief Detective slaps her face. In other words, the Team does its best to drive her away, then takes the benefit of her work as their own and relegates her to the motorcycle patrol. It’s no more than you would expect. Even Sang-gil Jo who has moments when he stands up for her, refuses her implied request that he takes her as a detective into his new team — yes, he does get promoted to captain thanks to his partner’s work. As an actor, Kang-ho Song isn’t really asked to do very much except tag along behind her although he does finally arrive in time to rescue her when she recklessly takes on an entire gang of armed villains. It should be said that all the fighting shows complete realism. At no point does anyone manage one of these martial arts balletic kicks or a magical blow with the fist or a throw casting an assailant through a window twenty feet away. Mostly people grapple and do their best to disable each other with the least risk to themselves.
So this is a superior police procedural which has an interesting murder plot for the detectives to unravel. Na-yeong Lee gets it right in the end and the men catch up to take the credit as you would expect. If it had retained its hard edge throughout, it would have been an outstanding thriller as the wolf-dog takes down more victims (don’t forget the belt). But it plays the same game as the Lassie films and humanises the dog. Yes, it’s a killer but that’s just what it’s been trained to do. Thanks to Han Yo’s direction, we’re supposed to want Na-yeong Lee to bring it in from the cold and place it in a home for retired homicidal wolves. Forgetting the sentimentality, you should see The Killer Wolf or Howling (2012) because of the quality of Na-yeong Lee’s performance. Even if you can’t get to see the film, the novel The Hunter by Asa Nonami is worth reading.
Somewhere in England, many moons ago, the powers-that-be decided the best way to make films was to borrow the concept of the repertory company from the theatre. So, as we work our way through the Ealing comedies to the Carry On films and beyond, a template for success emerged. Essentially this involves taking a small group of well-known actors, dropping them into a “situation” and watching what happens. These victims of circumstance are usually friends, often living together in the same village or part of a city. The catalyst can be anything from a cargo of whisky washing up on shore to the need for the WI to raise money for a worthy local cause. Once the characters are established and the stimulus applied, the cast twists and turns in the wind until all the loose ends have been chased down and resolved. The film ends when as much of the inherent tragedy has been dispelled and there’s enough hope to inspire the paying customers when they leave the cinema. Never let it be said that any British film carrying the label of a comedy is anything other than a pottage of misery that ends with half a smile.
So it is with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) in which director John Madden works from a screenplay by Ol Parker based on a novel by Deborah Moggach. We start off by meeting our indomitable character actors. We find Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) two months after the death of her husband. She was married forty years, was never troubled with any decision-making and, consequently, has no way of dealing with all the debts he left behind other than by selling the flat and going somewhere cheap to live. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is a recently retired civil servant who lost his lump sum when he invested in his daughter’s IT business. The initial scenes as he and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) look around a flat in sheltered accommodation nicely captures their despair. Murial Donnelly (Maggie Smith) was in service. She was highly competent, but when she grew old and had trained her successor, she was discarded in much the same way her employers might throw out an old washing machine. Now she needs a hip replacement and the waiting times in the UK are a minimum of six months. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a retiring High Court judge who wants to return to his old home in India where he left a friend forty years ago. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) are getting old and desperately lonely. They hope to remedy their situation by joining the others in retirement in Jaipur as the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Old and Beautiful).
From the outset, we have to suspend disbelief. The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). He’s the stereotypical Wilkins Micawber, always convinced something will turn up. Unfortunately, his head is so far up into the clouds of optimism, he forgets to actually do anything to make any of his plans a success. The idea he could have advertised his hotel in England and organised the arrival of these seven guests is laughable. Equally absurd is the reaction of the magnificent seven when they discover the hotel is slightly less well-appointed than they might have thought from the Photoshopped pictures. However, we’re not to dwell on such matters. Our heroes arrive, they move in. That gets us started.
The city of Jaipur is beautifully filmed and the hotel is wonderfully dilapidated. So, with one exception, they all use it as a base. Tom Wilkinson immediately sets off in pursuit of his old friend, Bill Nighy takes to wandering round and soaking up the atmosphere. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie join the local social club and start searching for singles. Maggie Smith goes into hospital to have her operation, Judi Dench gets a job in a local call centre, advising on how to make telephone sales pitches to elderly people in England, and Penelope Wilton sits around the hotel in dark despair. As a local subplot, Dev Patel is in love with a girl who works at the call centre but her face does not fit into his mother’s plans for an arranged marriage. Continuing in the same order, Tom Wilkinson’s search is a mixture of fear and longing. The resolution of this thread is unexpected and affecting. Bill Nighy is a civil servant who has never managed to change a lightbulb. He’s defeated by practicality yet desperately loyal to his wife. In a way, both men are somewhat unworldly but do their best to fit in, no matter where they may find themselves (even if it means partaking of a little apple smoke). Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are driven by desperation. They fear dying alone but have been trying too hard to meet people and make friends. They end with varying degrees of success.
The most interesting thread is given to Maggie Smith and I find myself undecided on whether she could make the transformation we see. In England and immediately on her arrival in India, she appears to be irredeemably racist. Putting the best possible interpretation on what happens, we’re supposed to think this was born out of ignorance. Because she had never met “different” people, she instinctively feared and so refused contact with them. However, when she finally does allow herself to interact with some of the local people, she embarrasses herself into rethinking her prejudice. In a way, the result is a somewhat ironic return to her life of service. Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as a woman relearning what it’s like to have a life. It’s a warm and, at times, amusing journey as she remembers the time she met her husband-to-be on a carousel and he put his arm around her waist to steady her on a rising and falling horse. Watching her give up the past and embrace the future is a delight. Penelope Wilton gets her way and goes back to England (and not a moment too soon). Dev Patel is also rescued from himself, so it all works out well in the end. Ah yes. Here comes the catchphrase. It does all come out well in the end. If things are not well at this moment, it can’t be the end.
So on balance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is worth seeing. I smiled and shed a tear or two. It’s a classic ensemble British comedy so the tears won out, albeit there had to be a little finagling in the plot to get everything to end as it should. Without a little contrivance, life would be too dull.
Well, here we go with my incipient Alzheimer’s again. As you no doubt tire of my reminding you, I am of an ancient vintage and remember reading Golden Age books like The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein shortly after it came out in the 1950s. Not that I was then a “juvenile” (although I was increasingly delinquent) but I just read science fiction regardless of the label. For those who have not met this early Heinlein, it’s about a boy and his strange pet. Well, now we come forward to 2011 and The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (TOR). Let’s try to capture a sense of what this book is about in two sentences: “This group of kids has been isolated on a planet where they find a mediaeval culture formed by packs of telepathic doggy creatures. To defend all from an external threat, the local aliens have to be uplifted into a technological age except their politics gets in the way.” Frankly, I thought I had escaped juvenile or, as it is now dignified, YA fiction, but the ageing Vernor Vinge is obviously entering his second childhood and wants to share the experience with us.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is unreadable as prose. I struggled to finish it, but if you can look beyond the leaden sentences and flat dialogue, and find the ideas sufficiently interesting, you might be drawn through to the end with minimal effort. But, frankly, the use of language is embarrassingly bad and, to my jaded mind, many of the ideas explored are offensive. As an example, let’s take the first major action sequence of the book. One of the problems of the world as we have it today is that a number of advanced societies act like beacons to the desperately poor who live in third world countries. This leads to the phenomenon of the boat people. Australia and other supposedly moral countries have blotted their reputations by failing to prevent thousands from dying as they try to sail to their shores. When the few survivors straggle onshore, they are promptly interned and often returned to the countries they came from. This emergent alien civilisation has a policy of killing as many immigrants as possible before they can land and then paying the few survivors to go on with their sea journey to find a more welcoming country, i.e. sending them off to die somewhere else. The human children are trying to improve matters by advocating internment (like that’s a real step forward). When one child fails to get her way, she shows the internees how to break out of the camp and lets them loose on the local population.
This is the worst of the American attitude to immigrants from Mexico and refugees from Cuba. Erect a fence to keep the people in the desert where they will die of thirst or hope the sea will kill those trying to sneak in from Cuba. In the border states, harass all people who look foreign and check their immigration status. Ship back any who don’t have the right documentation. Australia interns the boat people on Nauru where they are routinely abused and punished. The idea is for this imprisonment to act as a deterrent yet, when most of those interned on Nauru are eventually given refugee status, all it does is inflict misery as the price of admission. Well Vernor Vinge’s civilised aliens are not into welcoming refugees from the Topical Zone. Indeed, he finds every way of telling us the feckless individuals and loose groups which arrive by boat are like animals without a proper “brain” to share between them.
We have a similar debate with our humans advocating a policy of caring for older pack members whereas these primitive and godless aliens have a practical policy of death with dignity, killing off the older members who would slow down the pack and adding new blood to build strength. The elements are symptoms of a more general and painful ideology being thrust down the throats of these poor aliens. It’s being suggested that the only way they can survive the probable conflict with the Blighter Fleet is by becoming more American in the right-wing, libertarian, evangelical sense of the word. Except, of course, the aliens don’t know or understand the external threat. Indeed, the children themselves are not completely convinced the threat is real. After all, the ships are thirty light years away without a working FTL drive. So the actual way in which the children relate to their doggy aliens is like unaccountable Americans telling the primitive third-worlders what to do. This is not altruism in action to protect these poor creatures from extermination by the Blight. The humans are only interested in their own immediate well-being and see the aliens as a means to that end.
This is not to deny there are some interesting elements in the way the story develops. The implications of the Tropical Choir, for example, would be worth exploring in more detail but, overall, The Children of the Sky remains a hard grind. So, as the third in this remarkably spread-out series, we’re left with A Fire Upon the Deep which was and remains a wonderful book. You have to look back with affection because the rump of humanity is saved by a vegetable. Only joking, of course. But instead of waiting twenty years to write a sequel, Vernor Vinge should have left this epic in his head. Unless, that is, you’re an incurable fan of the man and will read everything he writes regardless.
For the record, The Children of the Sky was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
Sometimes you pick up a book and, when you finish it, you have a sense of satisfaction that a new author in his first published book has not simply produced a good book. In fact, Low Town by Daniel Polansky (Doubleday, 2011) is a very good book. It bodes well for the future assuming, of course, he can be persuaded to keep on writing. In some senses, I suppose we should classify the book as being fantasy noir. As a benchmark, we can think of Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse, who, for twenty-five gold pieces a day, plus expenses, will act the part of an archetypal PI like Philip Marlowe in a fantasy setting. The problem with this kind of book is that it takes the original pulp model too literally. Yes, such books are a very good translation of the concept from crime to fantasy, but they simply recycle the clichés rather than reinvent the concept in a different setting.
In her introduction to the superior anthology, Supernatural Noir, Ellen Datlow emphasises the need to find the spirit of what made noir great in the hands of exponents like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and somehow recreate that. That’s why this book by Daniel Polansky is so good. Yes, we have a tough guy as our hero and he’s walking down the mean and dirty streets of some slum area where the poor and the fallen spend what’s left of their lives. But this is a fascinatingly rounded character that manages to capture all the things the best heroes have. He’s a loner but understands the need for friends and others he can either trust or make deals with. That makes him potentially very loyal. He hates authority, but is intelligent enough to know you can’t survive unless you can compromise with those who have power. He’s able to fight and is not afraid to kill but, if at all possible, he prefers to make his point without leaving too many bodies in his wake. Like the best of the American pulp heroes, he learned his trade as a soldier and, if a fight is unavoidable, he prefers not to die. That means he will ignore customs and conventions that might limit self-defence. He always goes into a fight intending to win. There used to be a girl before he went off to war but, no matter what the temptations, he’s put that behind him. Relationships would slow him down. Except, once when he was young, he rescued a waif from a fate worse than death and the same sentimental streak runs through him now.
So here we have a man who’s earned the nickname Warden in Low Town. He’s a one-man crime syndicate, earning his money as a dealer but also prepared to keep order in an area where the official law enforcers are loath to appear. When he left the army, he spent some time as an investigator. He was very good at his job but, as is always the case, his face didn’t quite fit and he left. The man in charge of the unit is dangerous to cross but, when interests overlap, there’s always the possibility of co-operation. It’s ironic that, by virtue of his criminal connections, he’s a more effective investigator in Low Town than the official police could be. When someone starts abducting and killing children, Warden is the one man most likely to be able to solve the case.
On the way, we meet the usual cast of fantasy characters. Our hero lives in an inn run by a long-time friend and his wife. This is a giant of a man who lost one eye in the war and, if he’s roused to anger, leaves broken bodies behind him. There’s the street-smart kid who’s just poking his head above the parapet to see the adult world in all its violent glory, the tetchy police officer who used to partner our hero and will still do the odd favour for him, and the corrupt police officer who just wants to see our hero dead. And, of course, since this is a fantasy novel, there must be a good magician who looks after Low Town with wards and spells to keep disease at bay. Working her way up through the ranks of magicians is the young girl our hero used to love. In the upmarket part of the city, the wealthy still play with swords and fight duels when they feel their honour has been besmirched. They are all familiar faces.
Put all this together and, despite the classic cast of characters, the setting of Low Town itself proves something of a triumph. It’s beautifully described. Better still, the flashbacks to times on the battlefield are engaging, particularly when we see how magic was used on a fairly massive scale to end a major campaign. All this fits together nicely to blend the supernatural and the mystery elements. Although I can’t say the solution to the mystery of who’s killing the children is all that surprising, the attempt to drag herrings of different shades of red across the page are pleasing enough. There’s such authorial enthusiasm all around that, in a sense, you stop caring and just go along with the flow. Low Town is a must-read for everyone who enjoys either the noir style or carefully crafted fantasy where magic works. Watch out for the name Daniel Polansky in the future. As a final note to avoid confusion, Low Town is the American title. The same book was published as The Straight Razor Cure in the British market.
The Daemon Prism by Carol Berg (Roc, 2012) is the final volume in the Collegia Magica trilogy and continues some two years after the events in The Soul Mirror with Anne de Vernase still working with Dante to learn how to control her own magical abilities. This is not going as well as it should so, as in the way of all romantic novels, our couple must separate. Yes, it’s that old trick, “absence makes the heart grow fonder” used to mug us before the story has a chance to get going. This leaves the now blind Dante at a loose end and ties Anne up with her worries when she gets back home. Into this convenient lull comes an old soldier with a dream. This proves the trigger to bring Dante’s interests to a focus on what looks to be a form of magical trap, yet one that might just enable him to recover his sight if he manages the situation properly. Since we see all this from Dante’s point of view, the ambivalence of how he should react to this is nicely caught. When a letter comes from his long-estranged brother, Andero, requesting his return to his village where his father is dying, the jaws of the trap begin to close.
Although Dante does take the basic precaution of asking Illario for help, his departure is reckless. Worse, on the way, he discovers a faction of the Temple are out to arrest him. Except there seem to be equally powerful forces offering some level of protection. It’s all confusing as he finally makes it to his village alone having lost Illario on the way, perhaps dead, and his loyal servant sent to warn Anne of danger. This leaves Dante to bond with his brother and, when Temple men are spotted on the trail into the village, they make a run for it. Meanwhile Anne finds the loyal servant’s dead body and assumes the worst. When she’s approached by the leader of the Temple faction out to capture Dante, she sends him away and immediately takes off after Dante.
Although all this is perfectly competent and hits all the right notes in maintaining Dante’s harassment across unfriendly terrain, there’s a slightly mechanical feel to it all. In part, this is because Dante is rather better as a character to observe in the third person rather than as a monologuing point of view. Frankly I think him better when he’s enigmatic. When you actually see the world from his more elevated magical perspective, it makes everything rather more prosaic. He mostly expects his magic to work and, when he’s not feeling guilty or demoralised, it does. In the first two books, when we have to watch him glower and agonise over who-knows-what, the eventual grudging use of some magic seems all the more impressive. The only feature that saves this book from being completely formulaic is the introduction of Andero as the brother. This is an interesting character who accepts a difficult situation and makes the best of it, actually sacrificing himself at one point to allow his brother to move forward on the quest. He’s a calming presence when all about him seems chaotic.
We then get into a long discussion of what the function of the titular prism might be and how magic first came into the world. Although it’s all quite clever when you look back on it and see the construction of this world and the explanation for how the magic works, it’s actually quite heavy going in the telling. I’m not taking anything away from the obvious care lavished on creating the detailed history and fitting past and present together to produce the climactic battle, but this book would have been immeasurably improved by the subtraction of at least fifty pages. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you want to see how it all turns out but, as might be a safe assumption in all books of a romantic nature, the final cliché is likely to be amor vincit omnia, i.e. Anne saves her man (yet again). Looking back at the trilogy, The Daemon Prism represents a reasonable conclusion with all the obvious loose ends tied up. Indeed, were she so minded, there’s at least one more book left to tell if the publisher chooses to cross Carol Berg’s hand with the appropriate amount of silver. So long as we can see it through Anne’s eyes, it might be sufficiently interesting to continue the story.
As an afterthought, the artwork by Gordon Crabb is particularly wimpy and shows our hero Dante as entirely too nice and not at all as someone who might be mistaken for a real demon. Anyone innocently picking this up might mistake the book as romantic fiction rather than fantasy.