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The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

The Willful Princess

For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.

I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb aka Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden

The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.

The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.

Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.

For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 17 to end

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Dr Jin

Thankfully there’s not long to go with Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012), but that doesn’t stop our intrepid team of scriptwriters from going down with melodrama of Titanic proportions on display. Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) is spending more of his time clutching his head and passing out. Sadly this does not also induce unconsciousness in us and the rest of the cast carry the show until he revives. Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) and the Dowager Queen (Jeong Hye-Seon) have installed King Gojong (Lee Hyung-Suk) on the throne, but are now disputing the appointment of high-ranking officials based on merit or clan allegiance. To break up this alliance, the increasingly unsympathetic Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) is working as a double, if not triple, agent for his father Kim Byung-Hee (Kim Eung-Soo). This means deceiving Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) based on their supposed continuing friendship. Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) is training as a surgeon and goes to assist Dr Jin deliver a breech baby by Caesarian section. This doesn’t leave many medical operations to attempt. Remember Dr Jin has already drained a blister on a big toe — after that, what mountain is left to climb? So now we come into the final piece of history that will lead to war. We arbitrarily find ourselves in 1866 with the suppression of Catholicism firmly on the agenda. Dr Jin saves the life of Father Félix-Claire Ridel. Unfortunately Kim Byung-Hee produces a situation in which it’s impossible for Lee Ha-Weung to ignore the anti-Catholic law so we now wait for the retaliatory French raid on Ganghwa Island. The headaches are growing more severe but I still can’t manage to lose consciousness. No wait! A young boy is injured. He could die. Why is Dr Jin flickering in and out of existence. It’s his great, great grandfather! Come on Hong Young-Rae, prove you’re a worthy successor to Dr Jin and save that boy! Oh, wonderful. Now we have to watch another three episodes.

Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) refusing to disappear

Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) refusing to disappear

Well the mutual blackmail attempts continue as the French decide whether to send gunships. Unable to stand any more pain, Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) throws herself in front of Dr Jin and takes a sword thrust meant for him. For the first time in this series, his attempt at open-heart surgery fails to save a life. Before she dies, she tell Dr Jin that Min Ah, the modern lover, is already dead. I have my tenses wrong there. . . .will have been dead by the time he gets back (if he does, that is). Quite how she knows this is a bit baffling but, armed with this information, he goes to throw himself off a cliff. Sadly Hong Young-Rae stops him. So now the useless Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su) deceives himself into believing he has a brain and betrays his father. Daddy Kim finally sees he can do no more and commits suicide. This leaves the loyal bastard alone, sobbing his heart out, thinking there’s nothing left to live for — after twenty hours of watching, I understand the feeling. We then cut to the battlefield with the French using canon to win the day while Hong Young-Rae tries to patch up the wounded. The tediously dramatic climax in Joseon limps across the screen. Kim Kyung-Tak makes a half-hearted attempt to assassinate Lee Ha-Weung. When that fails, he agrees to lead Dr Jin through French lines to rescue Hong Young-Rae who, naturally refuses to leave. She’s a doctor and she’s not going to abandon her patients. At the end of a lot of fighting, Kim Kyung-Tak is dead and Hong Young-Rae is seriously wounded. After performing emergency surgery to remove shrapnel, Dr Jin also receives a fatal wound, falls off the wall surrounding the fort they are defending, and wakes up in a modern hospital bed. He has a single strip of bandage around his forehead. This is supposed to signal he’s had brain surgery to remove a foetus-like growth from his skull. How they managed to do the surgery without shaving his head and having him on full life-support is puzzling. Anyway, he leaps out of his bed, runs through the hospital and finds Yoo Mi-Na who flatlines. There’s drama as Dr Jin shouts for “epi” and then braces with the paddles to fight for her life. Fortunately, in Joseon, Hong Young-Rae opens her eyes as the anaesthetic wear off. This triggers a miraculous recovery in our time and cheers from the other hospital staff. Dr Jin has triumphed again.

Dr Jin with bandage and Yoo Mi-Na (Park Min-Young)

Dr Jin with bandage and Yoo Mi-Na (Park Min-Young)

It’s always difficult to draw comparisons. In spirit, the series could be rerunning the same ideas as in Lest Darkness Fall by L Sprague de Camp where a graduate student of history travels back to Rome just before the start of the Dark Ages. The question is whether to intervene to preserve Rome. Or this could be a version of the set-up in To Your Scattered Bodies Go in the Riverworld series by Philip José Farmer where this return to a reconstructed past is a kind of moral experiment run by unspecified intelligences to see whether humanity is ethical or fit to be the rulers of the universe as in Transit by Edmund Cooper (cf Seahorse in the Sky where passengers in an aeroplane wake up in coffins).

Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han)  and Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong)

Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) and Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong)

Is it all just a dream? Perhaps most infamously, Dallas ran an entire season which turned out to be Pam dreaming. This could be going on either in Yoo Mi-Na’s head after her surgery or in Dr Jin’s head after his surgery. Except in the first episode, in flashback, and at the end we get to see Choon Hong, and the doctor who wakes Dr Jin says he was found some distance away from the hospital and hands him the ring found in his “strange clothes”. We’re therefore supposed to think he’s actually travelled. Closer to this series, perhaps we should remember X-Files: Series 6, Episode 3. Triangle where Mulder travels to 1939 and then wakes up in hospital with the bruise on his cheek. Similarly, MacGyver: Season 5, Episode 12. Serenity where he travels to the Wild West and wakes up with the knife.

In this I note the actual mechanism for transmission in either direction seems to be death. In the first episode, Dr Jin falls off the roof of the hospital. To return, he has to be stabbed in the gut and fall off a high wall. This might characterise the experience as Limbo as in the TV series Lost. Or it could be a loop as in By His Bootstraps by Robert Heinlein where Bob Wilson iterates through the time gate until he emerges a free man or something. In the first episode of this series, we meet a man covered in bandages. The tumour is removed from his head and he’s later on the roof of the hospital. Perhaps this is Dr Jin ending one of his loops and, when the current Dr Jin falls off the roof, this is the next iteration. That would explain why no-one at the end recalls the man in bandages. More to the point, it explains why Dr Jin gives instructions to the young version of Choon-Hong. Despite his protestations of love and fidelity to Yoo Mi-Na, he expects to go round the loop at least once more.

Put all this together and Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin turns out to be easily the worst piece of Korean drama I’ve seen so far. It not only fails as science fiction, it’s also woeful, by-the-numbers sageuk with only one sequence even remotely reaching a standard of acceptability. This is definitely not recommended.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) thoughts on the first four episodes
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 13 to 16

Sharps by K J Parker

December 31, 2012 3 comments

Sharps-652x1024

I think it’s time to plunge into a minor thicket of incomprehension and talk about irony for a moment or two. I have it on the best authority that Americans just don’t do irony. In terms of humour, the American audience is usually driven by the gag and dislikes situations in which the listeners are not sure whether the punchline has been delivered and they’re supposed to laugh. I suppose that’s why they clap at the beginning of a song. This avoids any embarrassment in not wanting to clap at the end when they find out how awful the song is. The rather specific cultural omission of an irony gene is customarily explained by an alleged seriousness buried in the American psyche. It seems Americans want uncomplicated communication, not situations in which they have to work out whether what’s being said is to be taken seriously. They therefore reject most irony as tiresome sarcasm, characterising the speakers as rude. So why start this review this way? Well, the general rule is if you don’t know what irony is, it doesn’t help to read definitions in a dictionary. But I hesitate to leave America in the dark. Given its publication in America, I therefore offer Sharps by K J Parker (Orbit, 2012) as a good example of irony for Americans to study.

 

The author specialises in writing a form of alternate history fantasy. Rather than write straight historical fiction, we’re presented with a different set of largely balkanised countries either caught up in national accumulations or Empires, or sufficiently distinct to have retained independence. It’s not uncommon for some of these kingdoms to fight economically disastrous wars, not because the people have anything personal against each other, but because their ruling elites disagree over policy. In this book, we focus on Scheria and Permia. The last war was ended somewhat abruptly when Scherian General Carnufex broke a siege in Permia by damning up nearby rivers and then releasing a flood which drowned thousands. This earned him the nickname of the Irrigator. The temporary peace deal identified a DMZ. By an oversight, this zone happens to be rich in valuable ores. If either side was free to mine, the sale of the resulting metals would rescue the winning country from bankruptcy. As it is, both governments have borrowed money and are unable to repay. As and when the governments default, the banks will collapse and both countries will lose their appearance of wealth. This does not suit the “rich”. Even though they are all mortgaged up to their eyeballs, they see salvation in the resumption of hostilities. To provide a casus belli, the powerbrokers agree that a team of top fencers shall be sent by Scheria to fight exhibition matches against Permian teams. In all the foreseen scenarios, war will be declared.

 

Of course no-one from Scheria would go if they knew they were being sent to their deaths. So a team of expendables has to be recruited. It’s led by Phrantzes, a man of military experience and an ex-fencer. He’s aided by the elusive Colonel Yvo Tzimisces who, when he’s actually around, functions as a kind of fixer. The actual team does contain a current national champion. He’s Suidas Deutzel who’s desperate for money. As a result of his experiences during the last war, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a tendency to behave in a rather erratic way. Giraut Bryennius was interrupted while making love to a Senator’s daughter. The irate father burst in on them and was provoked into drawing his sword. More by luck than good technique, our naked hero killed the avenging Daddy in self-defence. Iseutz Bringas is a rather bad-tempered woman who refused the arranged marriage that would have given her family a status enhancement. The price of this refusal was membership of the team. Adulescentulus (who prefers the informal name, Addo) Carnufex is the son of the Irrigator — his presence gives the team political credibility. If this is a peace mission, the son of the hated General makes a good sacrificial lamb in the fights. The latter three may, at best, be described as amateurs, i.e. they have never fought in competition and have only ever used foils and blunted weapons. It therefore comes as a shock to them when they discover they will have to use “sharps”, i.e. real weapons that can maim and kill. Naturally, anyone on the Permian team who draws Addo will be out for blood.

 

So there we have it. Our team of heroes sets off for Permia and fencing glory except there are problems even before they manage to get out of Scheria. At first these problems are dismissed. Their suspicions smack too much of paranoia. And even among themselves, they refuse to believe the General would have sent his son to die. What Addo thinks is, of course, less clear. In every way, this is a beautifully constructed mystery as the author challenges us to work out what’s happening while propelling us forward with breakneck speed into a series of fights both on and off the formal piste. The politics and economics are also skillfully interwoven so we can piece together who would have a motive for each move and countermove. The character development is also a delight as either confidence is shaken or cowardice is confronted. I forgive it for being slightly on the long side. When you look back, it’s hard to see what could have been left out without damaging the end product. All things considered, this makes Sharps something of a triumph and, as a standalone, you have no excuse not to read it (missing out on it would, in itself, be an irony given my opening paragraph).

 

For other reviews of books by K J Parker, see:
Academic Exercises
Blue and Gold
Purple and Black

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 13 to 16

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Dr Jin

Well, as we accelerate into the second half of Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012), everyone is plotting now. Royal Doctor, Yoo Hong-Pil (Kim Il-Woo) continues the plan with Kim Byung-Hee (Kim Eung-Soo) to kill King Cheoljong (Kim Byeong-Se) and blame Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon). But it all requires careful timing. The clan need to move their nominee into position as heir before the latest puppet dies. Working the other side of the fence, Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) plots with the Dowager Queen (Jeong Hye-Seon) to line up the boy who will become King Gojong (Lee Hyung-Suk). This is proving difficult but he does literally hit the jackpot and manages to get Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su) exiled for trading with Westerners. That gold finally came in useful.

Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) and Dr Jin (Song Seung-Heon)

Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) and Dr Jin (Song Seung-Heon)

Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) and Dr Jin finally manage to convince Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) that it’s her destiny to marry Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) so she’s really miserable while the young lover manages the first smile we’ve seen out of him for hours of screen time. Not surprisingly, Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) walks back into the picture with vague explanations of how he managed to survive and who helped. He’s currently hiding out with Choon Hong. Which just leaves us with all the doctoring. To fire up the excitement, the King decides he has acute appendicitis and rolls around in agony. This would normally be a quick and easy operation, but Dr Jin discovers his patient is anaemic. So he throws together a blueprint for a centrifuge and before you can say, “Blood typing for Dummies”, he’s discovered that Lee Ha-Weung is the right type to act as live donor. There’s just one problem. Lee Ha-Weung wants the King to die so his son can become King. Dr Jin gets all disappointed that this great man should want him to kill the King. This produces the irony that Kim Byung-Hee and Dr Jin insist the surgery should go ahead. Saving the King comes first. They can argue about the succession later. Anyway, as the script requires, it all works out well because, when the King wakes up and, wait for it, feels as if he’s cured, he’s so overjoyed he says the young boy can be adopted by the Dowager Queen which puts him on track to succeed. Kim Byung-Hee barely flickers. He thinks he’s got lots of time to persuade the King to actually nominate someone else as the heir.

Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) and Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young)

Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) and Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young)

This leave us with two points of interest. Choon-Hong proves she’s a genuine time traveller by showing Dr Jin the Rubik’s cube he gave her in the hospital as she recovered from brain surgery. If she can go back and forth, so can he. Hong Young-Rae is now dreaming of Yoo Mi-Na, her future self, and to prove the entire thing is all going to require the maximum melodrama to work out, she’s also diagnosed with breast cancer. I have visions of script meetings where they discussed whether Dr Jin could search the countryside for meteors and hope to find enough radioactive material to give radiotherapy. This idea was, of course, dismissed. The risk of him finding Kryptonite was too great. Then comes the operation. Should he save the girl? He cuts. The pain in his head explodes. Lights flash before his eyes. He’s changing the future (again) but this time with the Universe telling him he’s doing the wrong thing. My head hurts too. The future is fighting back. “Don’t save the woman!” it shouts. So the naturally stubborn Dr Jin oversees the operation and her life is saved. He’s the irresistible force and the Universe had better look out. So to prove everything is now up for grabs, Kim Byung-Hee orders the worthless Kim Kyung-Tak to kill Lee Ha-Weung. He shoots. The man falls. Has the future really been changed?

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) fated to be one of life's losers

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) fated to be one of life’s losers

Frankly I can’t say I care. Dr Jin has been blundering around in the past saving everyone and changing history beyond all recognition since the series began, even introducing blood transfusion and making his own stethoscope out of bamboo. He saved hundreds in a cholera outbreak. Are we to assume this had no effect on the future because most of the people saved were slaves and peasants? It’s absurd this script makes everything turn on saving the yangban Kim Byung-Hee. In a science fiction plot, Dr Jin has completely wrecked the past and no matter what he might try to correct things, he’s doomed to fail. Except this is a historical fantasy with chronic romantic pretensions so one of the two versions of this woman, Hong Young-Rae or Yoo Mi-Na, will presumably get her man (or perhaps they both will). I’ve given up caring. However, just to bring us up to date (ha!), the latest explanation of this time travel ability depends on a particular mutation in the brain — step aside Time Lord in your TARDIS, this is a job for X-Woman Kate Pryde, i.e. the adult Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat. This explains both Choon-Hong’s physical travel and the visions of the future or past. However, she now informs us the downside of this mutation is that it becomes the site of a tumour if what the mutant does pushes either end of the transfer out of balance. So the foetus-like growth Dr Jin removed in the first episode was the organ permitting travel but grown life-threatening. Choon Hong tells Dr Jin he’s only got days left before he too dies. His headaches grow more frequent and disabling. Even so, he saves Lee Ha-Weung who, when the King dies without changing the implicit nomination of the boy destined become King Gojong, blackmails Kim Byung-Hee into permitting his son to be named heir. Progress of a kind is maintained as Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) lurches towards the end for which will bring us all a merciful release from these terrible flashing lights and headache-inducing pictures on the screen.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) thoughts on the first four episodes
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 17 to end

Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 9 to 12

December 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Dr Jin

Well, as Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) progresses, my hopes of crossing dimensions have been put on hold as our good Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) has confessed travelling back in time to Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young). And she believes him — he just looks so convincing with that sexy ponytail and those handsome eyes. Anyway, she’s now enthused with the idea of learning future medicine and so breaks off the engagement with Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) — poor boy, he looks so lost. Her mother (Kim Hye-Ok) is very distressed at the failure of this arranged marriage and throws her daughter out of the house. With nowhere else to go, she moves into the clinic. To keep the pot boiling, the jealous Royal Doctor, Yoo Hong-Pil (Kim Il-Woo) conspires with Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su) to frame Dr Jin for killing patients. All the clinic doctors get a beating and the clinic is closed. Note the scale of values on display here. The doctors are supposed to have killed several peasants so they each get ten strokes. I suppose it’s painful but, as punishments go, it hardly matches the seriousness of homicide. To move round Left Side Minister Kim Byung-Hee (Kim Eung-Soo), Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) gets in to see the Queen Dowager (Jeong Hye-Seon) and persuades her to allow Dr Jin to give her a wellbeing examination. While he’s inside the Palace, one of the Dowager Queen’s favourite entertainers falls ill. Yoo Hong-Pil, the Royal Doctor, says it’s just indigestion. The good doctor diagnoses a perforated ulcer. To demonstrate the point, he cuts open the man’s stomach with the Dowager Queen looking on, points out the hole, and just in case she wants to try it herself later on, shows her how to sew the stomach wall back together. It’s all terribly educational and, suitably impressed, she orders the clinic reopened. Meanwhile Lee Ha-Weung has moved a gambling operation into the upmarket brothel and is coining money. He plans to throw a banquet for the Dowager Queen and persuade her to back his son for the position of next King.

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) and  and Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su)

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) and and Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su)

We now come to a sequence showing what Korean drama can do if it tries hard enough. Mrs Hong stops eating properly after throwing her disobedient daughter out and gets Beriberi. Being stubborn she refuses to eat “ordinary” food with the right vitamins inside, so Dr Jin introduces donuts filled with the right stuff. This tempts her into eating and she begins to recover. When the Dowager Queen hears of this, she wants to eat donuts so they are ordered for the banquet. It all boils up nicely. Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) decides to assassinate Left Minister Kim Byung-Hee who, in turn, plans to kill the Dowager Queen and blame everyone troublesome. Come the day, Kim Kyung-Tak saves his father and, in a quiet back street, unmasks Hong Young-Whee. The Dowager Queen is fed poison and, under Dr Jin’s direction, Yoo Hong-Pil stomach pumps the poison out and saves her life, i.e. the murder plot is failing. But Dr Jin, Hong Young-Rae and Lee Ha-Weung are arrested anyway and tortured. With the King fed edited news, he orders their execution and it’s left to the conflicted Kim Kyung-Tak to save the day. As a reward, Kim Byung-Hee orders his illegitimate son to commit suicide, having carefully removed the bullet from the gun, and sends off Lee Ha-Weung into exile. Up to this point, this sequence is all relatively small-scale in terms of emotion and has a clever mystery element. Although we could have done with a less dramatic piece of surgery and the execution scene is interminable, this has been very successful. And finally, at the halfway mark, we get hints of how Dr Jin came to move through time (if that’s what he did). It all seems to be connected with Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon). How or why she has done this is unclear, but she tells him he has messed everything up because he saved the life of Kim Dae-Gyun. At least this is a step in the right direction and, if we’re going for the simplistic solution, Dr Jin can get the future back on track if only he can get rid of the Left Minister and fix the life of Hong Young-Rae which has been disrupted by his arrival. I could have done with a half-hour monologue from our hostess explaining exactly what’s going on, but that would be too much to expect at the halfway stage. Hopefully, we’ll get more infodumps nearer the end.

Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) and Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han)

Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) and Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han)

We now shift to Jinju in Gyeongsang province and the time is 1862, i.e. we arrive for the uprising. All the key players are present and tie themselves in rather silly knots as we slip into corny sageuk melodrama. Kim Kyung-Tak and the army arrive to put down the rebellion which is now led by Hong Young-Whee — promotion comes fast in the distant past. Lee Ha-Weung is passing through on his way into exile and Dr Jin is running after him to stop a premature execution ordered by Kim Byung-Hee. Hong Young-Rae is trying to find her brother. On this road trip, Dr Jin kills an insect nesting in a brigand’s ear and stitches up a corrupt magistrate who later shoots Hong Young-Whee. Dr Jin is now burdened with guilt but, when he returns to the capital, he’s promoted into the Palace to look after the King. Naturally, Kim Byung-Hee and Yoo Hong-Pil plan to kill the King and blame Dr Jin. Hong Young-Rae is left unconscious and in shock while an anxious Kim Kyung-Tak mops her fevered brow with a wet rag — it’s all he can manage in a tent in the middle of a battlefield after killing all the rebellious peasants. Hong Young-Whee fell off a cliff and is missing — we’re supposed to think he’s dead.

Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) caught in the middle

Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) caught in the middle

So we had a few good moments in this quartet of episodes before it relapsed into court intrigues and conspiracies. I’m warming to Kim Eung-Soo as the villainous Kim Byung-Hee. He’s a steady captain of the corrupt clan ship, doing just what he needs to maintain control. Kim Jae-Joong is still walking around like a pale ghost, making Kim Kyung-Tak a bit wearing to watch, but he’s beginning to show signs of a brain capable of independent thought even if he was prepared to kill himself on his father’s orders — also following this line, Lee Beom-Soo as Prince Lee Ha-Weung was submissive to the King’s order to drink poison. What a terrible waste of talent if all the best men obey the command to die if that’s what their Lords order. So Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) is verging on the unwatchable, but I’m still vaguely interested to see what explanation the scriptwriters offer for this time travel.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) thoughts on the first four episodes
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 13 to 16
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 17 to end

Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 5 to 8

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Dr Jin

Well now we have these reviews for Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) under way, I need to catch up a little with some of the history on display in this Korean drama. Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon), our time traveller, has ended up in the Joseon of 1860 and has met Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) before he becomes the Regent for his son, King Gojong (Lee Hyung-Suk). We have King Cheoljong (Kim Byeong-Se) on the throne as this series starts. The initial intention of placing these real people in the path of our neurosurgeon is supposed to give him his first experience of keeping history on track (ha! as if that’s what’s happening in this series). So when the young king-in-waiting catches cholera, our hero is in there “inventing” IV technology to prevent dehydration. That way he keeps the future king alive for his appointment with destiny. Everything else is, of course, absurd. Having cured everyone in this peasant class suburb, our good doctor eventually succumbs to cholera (not surprising since he would have had no natural immunity to it). Thanks to Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) inserting a drip, he’s soon up and about and able to run around rescuing the sick when Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) and the troops turn up to burn the village. Disease control in those days was rather basic. If you can’t cure the disease, destroy all places of possible infection. Notice that a blacksmith has now made needles for insertion into veins for the IV drips, there are glass jars slung from bamboo poles with clamps to regulate the flow. And when Dr Jin fell down, Hong Young-Rae knew exactly where his femoral artery was to save his life. This medical expertise is spreading with the speed of a contagious disease.

Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) wise beyond his years

Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) wise beyond his years

Anyway, now Dr Jin’s talents have been recognised, he’s established himself as a teacher (can’t imagine why he does not think this is changing the future). He’s teaching basic anatomy and the theories of infection control with antiseptics made by boiling down rice wine to liberate the alcohol. Our good doctor then finds himself called into action by Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon). Yeon-Sim (No Eul), one of the girls, has developed syphilis. So our expert is all fired up to invent Penicillin using mould scraped off whatever happens to be rotting. But then he stops himself. If he does this, he says to himself, he will change history. This is a revelation. Change history. No he can’t possibly do that! I suppose we just have to close our eyes and accept this farrago of rubbish as the best a scriptwriting team inexperienced in science fiction can produce. He started off saving individuals who would have died. Then he saved the capital from a cholera epidemic — imagine how many people that saved who should have died. And now he stops because he wants to let a prostitute die! This series has some twisted morality on display.

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong)  as a desperately jealous young man

Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong) as a desperately jealous young man

The relationship between the illegitimate Kim Kyung-Tak and the legitimate Kim Dae-Gyun (Kim Myeong-Su) is boiling up nicely. The young one has been victimized but still has a sense of morality about him. The aggressive legitimate son is a crook who was profiteering during the cholera outbreak and is dealing with the Westerners on the quiet which is a federal crime. Anyway, as a result of his market manipulations, dim-but-legitimate son has managed to amass a cache of gold. Lee Ha-Weung and Joo Pal Yi (Lee Won-Jong) work out he has the gold hidden in his home. Since they also know Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) is the leader of a rebellious bandit group, they persuade him to steal the gold. Meanwhile Dr Jin’s conscience has been gnawing at his vitals, so he whips together an instant production facility and produces Penicillin while teaching the doctors all about the scientific method. This saves Yeon-Sim only for her to be arrested and tortured to reveal whom she told about meeting the Westerner. Rather than give up her love, she commits suicide leaving Lee Ha-Weung all fired up to change Korean society for the better. He starts by getting Dr Jin to operate to remove a giant tumour from neck of the current Dowager Queen’s favourite niece. Meanwhile Kim Kyung-Tak pushes up the date for his marriage to Hong Young-Rae. When she goes to Dr Jin’s clinic to quietly return his future clothing, she’s injured in a fire set by one of the doctors who has stolen the Penicillin to sell on at a vast profit. Now Dr Jin has to save the girl (again) which would be straightforward except Kim Dae-Gyun is encouraged to kill him and Lee Ha-Weung. Oh dear, the assassins are back in action wearing their black straw hats of office.

Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) it's tough to be the love interest in Korean drama

Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) it’s tough to be the love interest

As an irrelevant aside, suppose Dr Jin has not gone back in time but has moved sideways into another dimension which is at an earlier point in its development. If that was the case, the timeline would be irrelevant and he could make a new world without worrying about its future. I mention this because he keeps talking about coming from “another world” rather than from this world’s future. In fact, that version of the plot would solve all of the paradox issues at a stroke. I suppose Song Seung-Heon is not doing too badly as a fish out of water — Dr Jin does have trouble with the local culture even though he’s apparently grown a ponytail in incredibly fast time — and it has been mildly interesting to watch Lee Beom-Soo sober up as Lee Ha-Weung. There’s very bad continuity before, during and after the fire as the young King Gojong seems to have disappeared. That just leaves us with Kim Jae-Joong doing reasonably well as the conflicted and naturally jealous Kim Kyung-Tak. Everyone else is on auto-pilot as Joseon stock characters. Overall, Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin is rather tedious as historical fantasy. I had hoped there would be invention as science fiction but, so far, the only thing missing has been a plague of zombies for him to cure, i.e. the medical side of the plot is ludicrous and the Joseon sageuk side is by-the-numbers court conspiracies.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) thoughts on the first four episodes
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 13 to 16
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 17 to end

Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) thoughts on the first four episodes

December 21, 2012 1 comment

Dr Jin

There’s a first for everything and this opening episode provides me with a complete novelty But before we get to that, a word about genre classification. This is supposedly a science fiction story, using time travel to relocate a skillful neurosurgeon from modern times to the Joseon period of 1860. We therefore have a man with all the skills to completely revolutionise medical treatment. This would potentially introduce major changes in the timeline with him saving hundreds of people who should have died. We’ll come to the explicit treatment of the paradox issue later. For now let’s just focus on the mechanism. This falls squarely into the fantasy area. Our surgeon opens up the skull of an emergency patient and, as he’s repairing the immediate injuries, decides to look at a tumour which shows up on the scan. This proves to be a highly immature foetus. As he removes it, there’s a flash of light and he’s aware of a desire to “return” somewhere. We see the foetus preserved in a glass jar, presumably using formalin or its equivalent, and we’re to assume it’s now manipulating the present. After a number of incidents, our hero finds himself falling off the roof of the hospital trying to catch the falling foetus only to land in the past. For the record, the foetus is photographed using creepy lighting to imply it’s sentient and working “magic”.

Dr Jin (Song Seung-Heon) and Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo)

Dr Jin (Song Seung-Heon) and Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo)

Based on the manga “Jin” by Motoka Murakami, Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) is a Korean drama remake of the Japanese television series which ran from 2009 to 2011. This sageuk features Dr. Jin-Hyuk (Song Seung-Heon) with two women in his life. The first is Yoo Mi-Na in modern times with the same actress playing Hong Young-Rae (Park Min-Young) in Joseon times. Unfortunately, the Joseon version is engaged to marry Kim Kyung-Tak (Kim Jae-Joong). He’s the illegitimate son of Kim Byung-Hee (Kim Eung-Soo), the Minister of Justice, which is shown as a dreadful social position. Appropriately he’s in position to almost arrest our hero when he first appears in Joseon. Fortunately, our hero is rescued by Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom-Soo) — a real historical figure so there can be a token consideration of the paradox issues. The other female of note is Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) who floats between all interested parties as a top hostess.

Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) as the hostess with the mostest

Choon-Hong (Lee So-Yeon) as the hostess with the mostest

So here we go with the central problem with the script. If our time traveller changes anything in the past, there’s a cascade effect into the future. For an extreme example, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury has a traveller who kills a butterfly while on a dinosaur hunt. When they return to the “present”, they find it different. While the most obvious paradoxes come when you kill your own parents, the implications of any change are potentially profound. If A died when he was twenty years old, there’s no problem if our traveller kills him at the right time. But if he saves A who then goes on to have ten children, there’s a ripple effect as all these new people live out lives they should not have had. So what does our good doctor do. Well, he’s no sooner walked into Hanyang (literally translated as the fortress on the Han river) than he comes across Joo Pal Yi (Lee Won-Jong) choking. Now any sensible time traveller looks on dispassionately and says he cannot intervene without upsetting history. Ha! As if. . . Our good doctor is immediately into action with the Heimlich Manoeuvre. When that doesn’t work, he’s pretending he’s still in the ER. “Intubate stat!” he shouts to no-one in particular grabbing a knife and cutting open Joo Pal Yi’s neck. Perhaps everyone is in shock at this murderous attack, because they all stand back and do nothing to stop him as he blows into the man’s neck to get the lungs working. Then he’s manoeuvring in the Heimlich style and the obstruction pops out. The patient is immediately leaping around assuring everyone he’s fine while the doctor staunches the blood with an old piece of cloth guaranteed to be full of bacteria. Minutes later, he’s bashing on the skull of Hong Young-Whee (Jin Lee-Han) with a wooden wallet and a chisel. In my early years, people called this a lobotomy but, in these primitive times, it enables our visiting doctor to remove a blood clot with his fingers. If you missed it the first time, he’s off again minutes later. This time cracking open the head of Kim Byung-Hee. Remarkably, all these patients are up and frolicking the next day. They had fantastic powers of recuperation in Josean times. This is being observed by the sceptical Royal Doctor, Yoo Hong-Pil (Kim Il-Woo) — he’s one of these professional naysayers.

Hong Young-Rae  as the Joseon Hong Young-Rae

Park Min-Young as the Joseon Hong Young-Rae

Not content to show off his carpentry skills on people’s skulls, he then demonstrates the skills of a lifeguard to half the court, swimming out and bringing a drowning Choon-Hong to shore. As she’s about to die, he fondles her breasts and kisses her dead body. No-one objects to this necrophilia. Instinctively they know this will one day be known as cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Then before you can say “I’m really a brain surgeon from the future,” he’s stitching up a poor woman’s forehead which is leaking blood like it’s on special offer at the local donation centre. And then guess what. He walks back into Hanyang and finds he’s in the middle of a cholera outbreak. This guy is like a lightning conductor. He only has to walk into shot and someone drops down with a malady only he can diagnose and cure. So now he’s the only one who can stop the epidemic from killing thousands. The scriptwriters should have given him a real challenge like bubonic plague, not something this easy-peasy.

Indeed, you can just hear the scriptwriters fleshing out the script outline and asserting they needed value for money out of the idea of transporting a doctor back in time. Just think, they said gleefully, he can save an entire city from death by curing cholera. How many butterflies is that worth? But you are shaking your heads. The historical records show no major death toll from cholera in 1860 so the doctor must have been there. Except there’s absolutely nothing in the historical records of the day to show revolutionary medical treatments based on opening up the body to remove clots or tracheal obstructions. Since these events are being witnessed by the Royal Doctor, there would have been records. So since our good Doctor knew no time traveller had introduced advanced medical techniques in 1860, he must be changing the timeline from the moment he sets foot in the past. Having a token real person to worry about is a nonsense. Everyone is a real person for these purposes and the more people he saves, the worse it gets. For these reasons, we have to abandon Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin as anything approaching science fiction and see it as nothing more than wooly historical fantasy.

For reviews of other episodes, see:
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 13 to 16
Dr Jin or Dakteo Jin (2012) episodes 17 to end

Purple and Black by K J Parker

June 14, 2012 1 comment

Purple and Black by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2009) is slightly unusual in being an epistolary novelette set in the same world as the Engineer trilogy and Company. Most modern prose at length will include one or more letters or other communications. This story is told exclusively through an exchange of military dispatches with covert messages included in the official mail. In the novel length works, we have followed the internecine war between members of the royal family which left Nicephorus alive. The reason for his survival is that he was never interested in the throne. He had hidden himself away in academia and was therefore disconcerted to find himself suddenly elevated as the King. No-one has ever come to power so reluctantly. Because he has no experience and no idea who might be trustworthy, he drags colleagues with him from the ivory towers.

In modern terms, he finds a government based on the interests of the nobility as filtered through an essentially corrupt and inefficient civil service. To force through reforms, he introduces what should have been a technocracy where people are appointed on the basis of their knowledge and expertise. Under normal circumstances, this would see economists appointed to run the department of trade and the treasury, experts in military history to run the department of defence, and so on. Except Nico does not have that many friends he can trust. So, regardless of whether their knowledge is relevant to the different posts, his friends are appointed and told to get on with things as best they can. The result is an advanced form of cronyism. The only justification for this is all the appointees are highly intelligent and come into the political fray without any prior allegiances. If they have the skill and can seize control, they should be able to introduce reforms that have some rational basis and do not excessively favour one group as against another. It should be government from the academic centre of the universe, i.e. hopefully utilitarian.

However, there’s one really difficult post — the regional governorship of Upper Tremissis, the northern provinces where, from what Nico can discover, there’s an invasion or a war or a civil uprising. This is potential dynamite. If the army is allowed to leave the capital, it could turn around, depose the current King and instal one of the generals as the new ruler. It has happened many times in the history of this kingdom. So, if at all possible, this fighting must be brought under control without having to call out the army. Nico therefore appoints his friend Phormio who has no idea how to run his own life efficiently let alone mount a military campaign without any additional soldiers to call on. This sudden banishment to the cold of the north comes as a severe shock to Phormio’s system. To make matter worse, he soon finds his civil servants have every interest in following the letter of the law and never letting him do anything. Indeed, he’s not entirely sure there is any fighting anywhere in this province. And as for finding ink of the right colour to write with. Well, that’s equally impossible. For the record, only purple ink can be used for official communications to the King. Black ink is reserved for private communications. Failure to use the right coloured ink is a serious criminal offence. People have been executed for less.

When old friends correspond, they may actually speak the truth to each other. Friendship means you have the right to be the bearer of bad news or to criticise without fear. Even when one of the friends has become king and has acquired the power of life and death over his subjects, this still holds. . . Or perhaps not. The notion of the unreliable narrator is well established and here we have two ex-colleagues either or both of whom may have a hidden agenda. So, from the outset, we’re looking carefully at what they say, what they imply and what they carefully do not say. The result is a rather pleasing resolution to the problems of leadership at both a national and provincial level.

This is another nicely produced book from Subterranean Press with rather moody jacket artwork from the ever reliable Vincent Chong. My only comment is that the story is rather shorter than the design and typesetting suggests. Purple and Black is elegant and somewhat ironic and only just good value for money in this hardback edition.

For a review of another novella published by Subterranean Press, see Blue and Gold. There’s a standalone novel, Sharps and a collection, Academic Exercises.

Shadow Valley by Steven Barnes

Well, for the second time this year, I have given up on a book without finishing it. When I was younger, I had a house rule. Out of respect for authors, I would always finish books. They had, after all, laboured to write these works of literature (in the widest sense of the word) to the end. The least I could do was to finish them myself. This left me skimming many books which I found unreadable.

As a child, well-meaning adults naturally gave me books designed to be read by children. I therefore ploughed through print acreages of jolly stories about clever little things who contrived to save the day when useless and incompetent adults messed up. As mechanisms for trying to make children feel good about themselves, they were unbeatable. We could solve mysteries that were opaque to the best local detectives or escape kidnapping attempts with the aplomb of young James Bonds (sadly, without the sex scenes). Yet, even to my inexperienced eye, these were trivial works of fiction. I was surrounded by adults who were more competent than almost everyone in these books. While I could not verbalise why I found them so superficial, I soon graduated to Sapper, Dornford Yates and others who wrote adventure stories with a better developed, i.e. adult, sense of the world.

Ah ha! Now to make my point. The key problem was in Weltanschauung. Those of you with some experience of philosophy will immediately understand. The usage of the German word first appears in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He talks of it as being the mundus sensibilis — he spoke and wrote Latin but felt the need to explain Weltanschauung in a second language. This says something quite profound. A German philosopher knew he could explain a German concept in Latin and be understood. Thereafter, all philosophers, regardless of language heritage, have used Weltanschauung to talk about the notion of word-view. At this point, you could rightly complain that, not being engaged in writing about philosophy, I should have avoided all these problems and just used the English translation from the outset. Except that to do so is to devalue the concept as a word. Kant and the philosophers who followed in his footsteps and discussed the ideas, have produced a volume of work now conveniently labelled as Weltanschauung. The use of the word incorporates the centuries of thought and several million written words of analysis. But only if you have studied philosophy. If you have not, the use of the word excludes you from the discussion.

In Shadow Valley, the normally reliable Steven Barnes has taken his adult sensibilities and buried himself in the mindset of a primitive African tribe. Thus, as readers, we are expected to forget ourselves as supposedly rational thinking beings, and to see the world through the eyes of hunter-gatherers surviving the dangers of the plains. This produces a paradox. If we were literate hunter-gatherers, the book could just assume all our life experiences and get on with telling the story. But in the oughties we have supposedly passed into the age of technology. Thus, to make the world of hunter-gathering more comprehensible to us, it has to explain everything from that point of view. Except that, by explaining things, the things lose their value because they come without all the cultural baggage that would have been associated with them in the tribe’s natural environment. It is translating Weltanschauung without making you read the philosophy texts to understand it.

I usually enjoy books written by adults for adults. The best books are richly imagined, taking a scene and investing it with words of description to bring it alive, taking complex interpersonal, economic or political issues, humanising them and exploring them in delicately defined situations. I have never been to Africa, except that, having read The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee and A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, I feel that I have. After a hundred or so pages of Shadow Valley, I found myself deeply frustrated because it is true to itself. It is a historical fantasy that never shifts its point of view to take account of modern sensibilities. It was not telling me anything I was interested in knowing about the human condition. Quite how or why the tribes should be wandering around on the plains of Africa only becomes interesting if we can empathise. But to empathise we have to have matching experiences. Simply having cultural stuff explained to us does not create empathy. Barnes is not using their Weltanschauung to illuminate our world in any way. He simply explains their lives and beliefs, and leaves it at that.

So this book will only be of interest to those of you who wish to wear the cultural blinkers of an African tribe at some indeterminate time in the past as the people wander around on the plains in search of somewhere better to live after their home was destroyed by a volcanic eruption.

For a review of a collection by Steven Barnes, see Assassin and other stories.

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