The Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2013) Bannon and Clare Case Book Two finds Archibald Clare, the mentath, continuing in pursuit of Dr Vance while Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, keeps this alternate history version of Britain safe from Spanish agents provocateurs. So what we have here is a variation on the theme of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This man has deductive powers honed to almost supernatural levels and he’s partnered with a magician in this different version of Victorian Londinium with Alexandrina Victrix on the throne as Ruler of the Isles and Empress of Indus with Consort Prince Alberich by her side. It’s not quite steampunk. A missing limb can be replaced but the purely mechanical has to be enhanced by spells for painkilling and full mobility. Consequently, this particular world is experiencing a collision between magic and the scientific method which, amongst other things, is leading to advances in technology and medicine that do not depend on magic for their efficacy. In some respects, therefore, this world is experiencing a delayed renaissance.
The problem, such as it is, may be simply defined. Magic actually works but it is inherently limited to specific individuals who cannot be everywhere. Such is always the way. Only a few gifted people have the talent that can be nurtured and developed into the Prime status. This makes knowledge inherently more useful because once it is disseminated, anyone with the wit to understand it, can exploit it. So there’s a direct conflict of interest. Those whose power and influence in society depend on their innate abilities are hostile to those who would generate practical and more universal applications for their ideas. So, for now, the horse rules for transport across land and the air is reserved for magical creatures. Up to this point, there has been no need to develop steam power for transport purposes because the population level and culture remain more mediaeval than Victorian in the sense we would understand. But, from the point of view of those in leadership roles, there’s a real problem in having to rely on individuals. Loyalties are not always guaranteed to persist. This gives the magically challenged a direct incentive to find ways of managing the world without having to rely on magic.
This book focuses on research which discovers the existence of bacteria. It’s speculated this knowledge could be weaponised and so work is undertaken to culture the relevant strains of bacteria and create a mechanical system for releasing it. This is ingenious because the magicians will not detect the source of the problem and their powers will not be able to defeat what they cannot understand. We therefore have a plot developed which sees Emma Bannon’s talents manipulated to unwittingly bring the infection into the Court while Archibald Clare thinks about the problem and infers the existence of a bacteriophage as a cure.
This is an interesting book with an intriguing premise, but the author has made the strategic decision to focus on the narrative rather than the exploration of the ideas. As a result, we have a relatively simple tale told with great efficiency. It positively zips along as our romantically but platonically entangled couple fight for the Empire’s safety while dealing with matters of the heart obliquely when they have a chance to draw breath. The Red Plague Affair is an enjoyable romp.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) starts, as must all retro films, with a black-and-white sequence in limited aspect as if it was somehow comparable to the original Yellow Brick road thing that everyone still talks about. This is not unsuccessful but, for once, the music by Danny Elfman is all wrong. It’s far too knowing and fails to grace the visual intention with period charm. So proving we really are in Kansas, we’re off with barkers calling credulous townsfolk on to the the midway which offers the talents of the small-time magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), playing to a half-empty tent. Inconveniently overcome by a sense of realism, he admits he can’t help a crippled girl walk. He’s a conman, not a miracle worker, rising up from a hick farm with dreams of being a great magician like Houdini. After a moment when he almost does the right thing with a girl who loves him, he runs away from the jealous strongman and into the hot-air balloon. Faced with death, he promises to do great things if only he can be saved from the twister that inevitably appears. Except the point of the original conceit was to show us that Dorothy was having a dream. That’s why the characters from the black-and-white preface show up again in technicolor. Yet in this prequel, our hero must move permanently into Oz so he can be there to meet with Dorothy later on. It’s therefore pointless to have the same people in both the human and the magical worlds.
Anyway, no natter what the justification, we’re into full colour as we enter the world of magic. Given the quick changes of scenery and the transformation of petals into butterflies, he quickly works out he’s somewhere different. The river fairies are pleasingly malicious in a slightly fleeting, non-threatening way. Theodore the Good Witch (with a bad temper) (Mila Kunis) then tells him of the prophecy that a wizard will come to free the people and become their King (with all the gold that goes with the role). He’s naturally attracted. Having saved Finlay, the flying monkey, from the lion, Theodora leads him to the Emerald City where he must convince everyone of his wizardly credentials. Waiting for him is Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He sees the treasure which is a good motivator, but the price of the throne (and the treasure) is that he kills the wicked witch. And we’re off into the quest bit of the film, but because this is a Disney film, the flying monkey is like Jiminy Cricket, a walking conscience (forget the flying bit while he’s carrying the human’s heavy bag). In short order we come to the China (Tea Set) City which is an interesting visual idea. The broken china figurine (Joey King) is a fragile and tragic figure with a broken leg and, unlike her human counterpart back in Kansas, is instantly repairable with glue conveniently imported from the human world. It seems the Wicked Witch sent her minions to destroy the city because the people were celebrating the arrival of the wizard. Our hero specifies no dolls on the witch hunt except she cries herself a river and gets taken along for the ride. And this is really the problem. Every film which sets off down this road has to strike a balance between cute and frightening. This is definitely unbalanced in the wrong direction.
The studio’s intention is a kind of conscious parallelism with the original 1939 classic musical which was cute (all that singing with Munchkins dancing militates against the fear factor rising). Ignoring the intellectual property problems in replicating the bits of cinema owned by the “other studio”, this modern band of copyright thieves with their own team of attorneys in action at every point, sets off down the appropriately coloured road to prequelise the original, i.e. borrowing just enough of the iconography to be a “Wizard of Oz” film. But the parallelists have a dilemma. They are not proposing to make a musical and they are including three witches, at least one of whom is wicked, so this could be scary. But if it’s really really scary, it might frighten the kids, so parents won’t bring them through the doors and make back the cost of production (which at $215 million is substantial with all that CGI). Actually it’s earned about $480 million worldwide, i.e. it’s not doing too badly. So what they’ve actually put on the screen is a cardboard version of a fantasy film. Even the least sophisticated of child viewers will yawn as they go through the Dark Forest. Worse, despite the occasional knowing comment, e.g. about stereotyping flying monkeys and their like of bananas, the script is leaden and the acting wooden (or bone china as the case may be). Eventually, our hero meets Glinda (the Good or the Bad or the not yet Ugly) (Michelle Williams) who suggests Evanora is the real wicked witch. Now there’s one of the twists!
Of course, when you get three sisters and a handsome if cardboard man, they can quickly grow jealous. But, predictably, the passage through the magic testing wall shows our hero to be hiding a kindly soul. So now comes the moment of truth when he ought to tell his audience that he ain’t no wizard, no siree! He’s weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and not at all what the Ozians were expecting to come and save them. Except Glinda, who’s seen through his transparent disguise as a real human being, urges him to continue the myth to maintain civilian morale. So the famers farm, the Tinkers featuring Bill Cobbs make stuff, and the Munchkins sing for ten seconds. But none of this motley crew can actually kill anyone or thing. That makes them the perfect army with which to fight the Wicked Witch (whoever she is). We then descend into mawkish sentimentality as our newly fearless leader decides anything is possible when you believe in at least one impossible thing before breakfast (that’s not counting the crispiness of cornflakes, of course).
So what is this hero actually made of? He’s a womanising bastard who loves them and leaves them. Indeed that’s one of the reasons why he almost immediately gets into trouble in the new world. Quite why the film-makers thought such a man would be a good influence on this new world is baffling as his bedroom eyes transfix each of the sisters in turn. Hey but this is a Disney film for children, right? That means no sex scenes just seduction with implied consequences. Oh yes, and because this is a Disney film, we have to include an apple scene (to avoid repeating the cliché, the victim does not immediately fall asleep — unlike the audience). In the end, this is a classic Disney family-values film in which even the China Girl gets her wish granted. All of which makes Oz the Great and Powerful one of the worst blockbuster films with which to start off the 2013 campaign for box office glory.
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey, 2013) is the fourth fantasy novel set in the Eight Kingdoms (after Echoes of Betrayal) and it represents an admission failure on my part. I reviewed the second in this series and remember making a mental note to read the next in sequence. Yet now I find myself reading the fourth. Such are the perils of a busy life as a reviewer. I therefore come back in to discover the sad death of Kieri Phelan’s grandmother. This has sent the Elves into a state of shock as their home is now under threat without someone to maintain the taig. As the new king of Lyonya, Kieri has his work cut out to maintain harmony between the Elves and the Humans. Inter-species politics have always been challenging. Arian, his newlywed half-Elven queen, has also lost their first baby which leaves questions about the succession. All of which dramatic introduction brings us to the core of the book.
In a world where different species must try to find a way to co-exist without too much conflict, the expected problems are complicated by the presence or absence of magical powers. If all species were equal in magical ability, the situation would be more manageable. But when there are quite significant differences and, within species, not all have equal talents, the potential for jealousy and rivalry becomes inevitable. In a way, a part of the hope for conflict avoidance will flow from constructive engagement between the species. The fact that humans and elves are able to interbreed should have lessened tensions. Yet the half-breeds have not proved an effective bridge, often finding themselves on the receiving end of prejudice from political enemies on both sides of the divide. In other relationships, only the dragon has sufficient distance to be able to talk with all sides and find trust. That said, an interesting bridgehead has inadvertently been created by a human becoming the leader of one group of gnomes. This accident may prove significant in building trust.
Extremists out to ferment trouble have developed an interesting range of justifications for distinguishing and disparaging magical abilities. Starting with the humans, it’s largely considered unnatural for any member of this group to have any ability at all. Except, historically, there have been human magelords and one group is accepted because their powers are used for healing. This means the humans have to be able to close one eye and see everything except medical skills as deeply evil. This residual magic can be inherently evil, or by reinterpreting moral and religious codes, against the law and so a justification for death. Or it can be an argument rooted in economics. If people can light candles without the use of matches, it puts all the matchmakers out of work, and so on. Then it spreads to political jealousy. Suppose one of your legal systems for dispute resolution is trial by battle, the unexpected winner obviously used undisclosed magical powers to beat the more fancied opponent. Once you start, there’s no end to the ways in which you can reinterpret reality to make magic, real or alleged, seem evil.
Under normal circumstances, this might not be too serious a problem but, as this novel gets under way, magical abilities are suddenly appearing across human lands. Caught up in these political problems, Mikeli Mahieran, the young king of Tsaia, has expelled Beclan Mahieran for displaying the talent. He has now left Tsaia with Dorrin Verrakai. This leaves the young Camwyn Mahieran in an interesting position, being uncertain whether he too might be showing symptoms of magical power. When Arian arrives on a state visit, we get into both species and gender politics with some discussion of the source of magic and the differences between the different schools of magic. Meanwhile, the Dragon drops off ex-sergeant Stammuel on an island where there may just be a threat from pirates and ex-thief Arvid Semminson finds himself adopted as a kind of quartermaster, now trusted as an honest broker to help keep troops provisioned, a curious life for someone now on speaking terms with Gird. Even Arcolin gets a promotion, refuses a kingship and looks for a wife. And then Kieri demonstrates to the Elves that, while he might not have all his grandmother’s powers, he has his own way of interacting with the taig and what lies beneath the Oathstone. Discovering the selani tiles is even more interesting as is the beginning of his power to re-establish the Elvenhome.
Put all this together and this is an interesting but more gentle read. We’re catching up with old friends and watching them move round the landscape, learning more about the powers and their limits as they go. There are occasional one-on-one fights but that’s not really the point of the exercise. This is just moving the broader narrative forward, keeping all the fans happy as their favourite characters are given their moment in the sun. As a final thought, Alured is lurking on the other side of the border. He’s due to make a move in the next book. Until then, there’s one note of sadness and two of joy. Limits of Power is a good contribution to the continuing tale.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
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.
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.
In the simple days of my youth, there were an alarming number of fantasy stories in which the hero is suddenly made aware he or she has magical powers. This was wish fulfillment overcompensation just after the war. There we were, walking around towns and cities with major bomb damage, wondering when life would get back to normal and speculating on how much easier it would be if we were all endowed with superpowers to clear the sites, dig new foundations and get everything ready for the rebuilding. It offered hope for the future when we could read about people who could not only rebuild, but use their powers to ensure we never had to go through another war. In these stories, we were there, looking over their shoulders as they experienced shock and surprise at the discovery they could do super stuff. These “ordinary” men and women had been living routine lives in whatever settings the authors picked. Suddenly they are pitched into situations in which their very survival depends on them mastering these new skills and besting those who have spent decades (or in some cases centuries) practising and refining their powers. And all this before eating breakfast and learning the magic spell, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side”. The most annoying feature of this approach is the assumption some people are so inherently superior to others, they could always prevail because they are “good”. It’s a kind of übermenschlich approach to the traditional battle between good and evil. In this binary world, there’s a superhuman lurking in everyone, just waiting for the chance to leap into action when the chips are down and the barbarians are at the gates.
And talking of chips, here’s Blind God’s Bluff by Richard Lee Byers (Night Shade Books, 2013) an urban fantasy novel built around a poker game. I confess to being a reasonably good bridge player but poker leaves me cold. This judgement has nothing to do with the merits of the game. The blend of straight probability calculation and psychology is intriguing and, when played at a high level, it can be interesting to watch. But with only one or two exceptions like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), the idea of making poker a central plot element has not attracted me. So, from the outset, this book is facing an uphill struggle. Now add in the human who turns out to have superpowers trope and you see why this book is never going to get anywhere in my estimation. So how does all this work?
Well, within ten seconds of our hero stopping to help an injured “man”, he’s attacked by feral fairies who try to rip out his eyes. Now you’ll understand this is not an everyday occurrence as you walk down a busy city street. Usually, the only thing assaulting your senses are the garden gnomes and their faux clay smiles. But the old “man” touches him and, “Rumplestiltskin was my great grandfather twice removed on my mother’s side” this awaken superpowers. In an instant, he’s able to throw up a force field. Moments later, he’s sending out his Ka (as in Gifford Hillary by Dennis Wheatley). In this form, he’s able to fetch his car, i.e. even when on the astral plane, he can manifest in the physical world to drive a car — neat trick, huh? And all this without any practice and within minutes of understanding the world of the supernatural and magic are real. This guy is a real operator in every sense of the word. As we go on, we meet the other players in the poker game. It’s the usual Friday night crowd in the backroom at the pub: the Mummy, a vampish female, a mechanical man calling himself Gimble of the Seven Soft Rebukes, a Queen Bee, and a demonlike figure called Wotan.
The other feature I found distinctly wearing on the nerves was the general lack of seriousness. This is not to say the book is a barrel of laughs. Perish the thought that any work in the urban fantasy subgenre should be a comedy. But there’s a lightness in the tone that militates against there being any sense of menace or threat to our “hero”. This does not deny that two of the dream sequences have potential in the horror zone, but you just know our hero is never seriously at risk and is always going to emerge stronger and more experienced from whatever the latest challenge is. The race at the end is overblown and the final nail in the coffin. Overall, I regret to say I found Blind God’s Bluff tiresome and, even more disconcertingly, when I finally arrived at the end, I discovered that it’s left open to become a series. If that’s the case, I will definitely not be reading it. This does indicate an acknowledgement that Richard Lee Byers is a competent author who has a good command of the craft of writing. It’s just that he’s allowed himself to be diverted from the need to write something genuinely scary by his obvious love for poker and his desire to construct an urban fantasy suitable for teens and young women to read. Definitely not recommended for anyone who likes red meat.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This has been my week for catching up on series or, in this case, I should more properly say serials, because this is definitely one story being told in installments. The technical problem when it comes to writing these books is how to keep the evolving plot fresh when you place a limit on the corps of characters to draw on in each exciting episode. This is not perhaps so much of a problem when writing, say, a serial about a group of crime-fighters. You keep the team the same, add in or subtract their sexual partners, and then introduce new villains to fight in each book. To keep it interesting, the team must be continuously training to add new skills to their existing repertoire so that, as each new challenge presents itself, they can defuse the threat in different ways. Sadly, this approach cannot work for a serial like Devil Said Bang by Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim Volume 4) (Harper Voyager, 2012). Why? Because from the outset, we’ve been following the everyday story of God and the Devil as seen through the eyes of James Stark, aka Sandman Slim. Since, by definition, you can’t get any more powerful than God and the Devil (although some of the senior angels and demons do their best to take down their respective top dogs), this limits the overall inventiveness of the supernatural systems of divine and diabolical “magic”. The only person who can develop in ability is James Stark.
For those of you who’ve failed to pick up on this serial, James Stark is distantly related to Wild Bill Hickok but has achieved a rather unique status. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a stone-cold killer or an Abomination, i.e. a mixture of fallen angel and human. Because he’s inherited “powers”, his early years see him develop as a magician on Earth. Then he’s involuntarily sent to Hell, survives and manages to find a way back. We pick up the story with him back in Hell. He’s been given the job of the Devil — the old one had grown rather tired of it all and needed a gullible twit to take over power “downstairs”. We therefore spend the first half of this book watching our hero trying to introduce a little order into the chaos.
This is an opportunity for some mild satire on organisational bureaucracies. At the end of the last book, Hell came in for a little pummelling. This means endless committee meetings to draw up plans for rebuilding, dealing with the problem of financing the entire project, looking at the need to beef up the military against the risk of further attacks, and so on. If it’s one thing Hell is good at it’s procrastinating. After all, this form of afterlife is not supposed to be comfortable so, with all the destruction, everyone at the lower social levels is going through real hardship and privation. The rich have their palaces and are insulated from the day-to-day awfulness. All they have left to occupy their time is plotting the assassination of the current Devil. There’s racial prejudice at the heart of this. A human as the Devil is a supreme insult to the hard core demons. Most of them fought the losing war with God and have been feeling pretty suicidal about being stuck in Hell. This latest development just adds insult to the original injuries.
The second half of the book has our “hero” escape Hell again and then confront serious problems for the human Earth back in LA. It’s at this point that the book grows increasingly less successful. In the previous episodes, we’ve had a mystery element as to who the villain is and how he or she plans to cause the maximum death and destruction. Coming to the fourth installment, the choice is villain is somewhat limited so, to distract us, the author introduces multiple plot strands. There’s so much going on with different people/beings coming and going, it’s quite easy to lose track of who might ultimately be behind it all. Indeed, I think there’s a slight air of desperation about the plot. Although it’s actually quite clever when you sit down to analyse it, the execution is overcomplicated and rushed. Ironically, I suspect it would have made a better plot for a single installment. That would have given us time to develop the individual plot strands into more substantial narrative arcs and we could have been given a better chance of working out what was going on. Because it’s only half a book, we have the wrong tone set in the first half. The slight humour militates against the seriousness of the threat when it emerges. Then because there are space constraints we get the set-up and then explanations of what was going on.
This leaves me in some difficulties in reaching a conclusion. Because it’s a serial, there’s no reason to start with Devil Said Bang. You won’t know who anyone is nor what they are doing. As with all these serials, you should start at the beginning. For those of you reading the serial, I find this the weakest book so far. Indeed, I would go so far as to advise the author to stop while he’s still ahead. I think, unless he comes up with a different approach, the serial will repeat the formula once too often and run out of steam.
Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 (2010) episodes 1 to 6
Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 (2010) starts us off in 1609. We’re watching the execution of the leader of the Malseju Sect (the End of the World Society) under the supervision of Gangwon Governor Lee Hyeongwook and this coincides with the apparent arrival of a flying saucer. Yes, this really is the Joseon version of the X-Files as a number of strange, unexplained phenomena, i.e. low-flying alien craft, put an already superstitious population into a state of dread. When news arrives in Hanyang, there’s natural scepticism and most prefer to believe mental illness in the Governor. So let’s take one step back to understand the politics. Under Confucianism as promoted by the yangban classes, i.e. the generals, nobles and scholars, society was to be ethical, civilised and ordered. The effect of imposing moderation and gentlemanly behaviour was actually to stifle criticism when the leaders did not show the appropriate levels of integrity, righteousness, loyalty, altruism and respect for the people. But that’s always the way power works. At the top of the tree was the Emperor who was said to have the Mandate of Heaven. Confucianism is not a religion as such and so this does not have the same force as the Christian equivalent Divine Right of Kings. But if there were unexplained lights in the sky and earth-shaking events followed, these could be interpreted as Heaven criticising the Emperor. Spreading news of such ill omens might undermine the stable relationship between ruler and subject, and would therefore be considered tantamount to treason unless you were a certified shaman and had the status to interpret supernatural or astronomical events in a politically acceptable way.
Meanwhile our hero, Kim Hyeong Do (Kim Ji-Hoon), is investigating corrupt gambling practices. When he gets the call to investigate, he and his assistant Jang (Jo Hie-Bong) find the Governor Lee Hyeongwook under torture, accused of perjury and even more serious matters alleging a conspiracy to undermine the respect for the King. However, there are those in government who have records of previous sightings. On the ground, however, other government officials pass the whole thing off as a meteor except they are torturing a villager who insists on trying to report the abduction of everyone else from his village. Those pesky aliens seem to have been rounding up a few humans for their evil purposes. When our hero finds the same location mentioned in the journal kept by the Governor and the leader of the Malseju Sect, he’s off to investigate, finds the empty village and a dog dead with unexplained injuries. There’s then an interesting alien intervention which moves our hero about an hour back in time. Fascinated he heads off for the mountain which seems to be the source of the problem, only to be arrested and warned off on peril of his life.
Naturally, he returns to the village and finds another survivor who dies when he touches one of the flying balls. As the sky fills with light, our hero is off to see whatever is to be seen. It’s a full encounter of the second kind with lights flashing, the ground trembling, and the alien craft in full view. Except, of course, no-one believes him and Jang tells everyone who will listen what they want to hear to escape punishment. With our hero tied to a chair for torture, Ji Seung (Kim Kap-Soo) appears. He’s the Left Royal Secretary and has been running the Government’s covert surveillance operation. This role makes him The Smoking Man (Joseon style means he has a pipe burning in most shots). Originally played by William B Davis, this character is part of the government’s attempt to suppress information about the alien colonisation. When it becomes clear to Kim Hyeong Do the only way he can save his life is to recant his testimony, he does so. This leads to a meeting with Heo Yoon-Yi (Lim Jung-Eun) (every Mulder deserves a Scully). Now he’s recruited into a history project. Everything unexplained is written down and sealed from public view in the hope, one day, that people will find the information useful.
So the first real case allocated to the pair concerns a broken tablet cast in gold. The carvings on it show people all looking at something in the sky. It probably dates from early Silla. Unfortunately, modern people coming into close contact with it over any period of time fall seriously ill. One has already died. A small bird rested in its surface dies in minutes. This looks like acute radiation poisoning. Needless to say, one piece of the tablet has been stolen on the way to the capital and, by devious means, one of the scholars gets hold of it. He has a theory the gold is only surface deep and, if he melts it off, he will find something “different”. Unfortunately when he tries it, it explodes killing him and the blacksmith. This leaves Ji Seung digging in the wreckage for clues while Kim Hyeong Do and Heo Yoon-Yi skirt around the issue of whether they are interested in each other romantically by agreeing to investigate her loss of memory.
The second case sees them pursuing a were “monster” who’s killing once a month in Jangju province. Someone is allowing prisoners to escape from jail as food for it. It could be the doctor who has a disabled son or it may be one of the officials. The daughter of the magistrate seems to hold the key. Then Kim Hyeong Do sees a humanoid creature with emerald eyes in the forest. Although it starts slowly and is initially little more than a slight atmosphere piece with lots of wandering around in the forest by day and night, the resolution is quite emotionally satisfying. I sincerely hope the officials quarantined off the pool in the forest and.or took samples of the water. Then we have a case of possession producing automatic writing as part of a more general precognitive ability. Our precog picks up the hero’s identity token and sees how the future will play out but loses the book of predictions he’s been carrying around. Some of the predictions affect the King so Kim Hyeong Do has to decide what to do. The resolution seems to be part of an emerging pattern. There’s a real emotional payoff which is rather unexpected. To that extent, the episode succeeds. But it’s another slim plot, barely more than a sketched idea blown up to a full length. The “Ghosts of Yidu” sees us playing with a haunted house that has just killed off a soothsayer trying to drive away the evil spirits. There’s lots of shaky camera work with shadows and out-of-focus dissolves while they search the empty building and find a shaman who explains the troubles began when they unearthed the top of a large metal spike while digging for a pond. So, of course, it starts to rain and night falls. With candles flaming, Heo Yoon-Yi and Jang find an explanation of the spikes (yes, there’s more than one) on a wall chart and they observe how the latest visitors died. But everything else is left inconclusive as it should be in an X-Files episode.
This is an excellent idea for a series because it would allow a proper study of the interaction between the pervasive beliefs and shamanic practices surrounding supernatural events, and a more scientific approach to the exploration of phenomena not currently understood. The idea of an emerging scientific curiosity being confronted by alien technology and more natural local beasties is intriguing. So I’m just about onside with Kim Hyeong Do’s apparent lack of fear when confronted by the unknown. He seems to have thrown off the shackles of superstition without the need for a pervasive Reformation. Alternatively we can just see him as a reckless idiot who has no sense of self-preservation. Heo Yoon-Yi seems a better fit although we’re meant to think she was one of the abductees and that explains her detachment and more cautious approach. So it’s a fair shot with thin plots blown up to fill time available. There’s lots of shaky camera work and spooky lighting to fill in the gaps. I suppose I will watch Secret Investigation Record or Joseon X-Files: Secret Book or Gichalbirok or 기찰비록 to the end but I’m less than enthralled.
The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press, 2012) is the final contracted work for the Swords of Albion series. i.e. this is not strictly a trilogy. It’s left in a way that, should the publishers feel there’s sufficient demand, they can cross the palm of our heroic author with silver and await the continuation of the adventure. Since this is the equivalent of James Bond under the earlier Queen Elizabeth, you can see how our horse-powered, sword-wielding hero could fight enemies around Europe and, when tired of local sport, turn his attention to Russia in the east. Given the inherent flexibility of the format, we could be into a multibook series except. . . This is not to deny the presence of some excellent features, but I’m not sure such a series could maintain itself. The problem lies not so much in the human side of the equation. Indeed, I would say the history in this alternate history is quite pleasingly realistic with the European politics bending to accommodate the outside supernatural input. Half the fun is watching just how perfidious this version of Albion has been and continues to be as the series develops. But the problem lies in the nature of the supernatural beasties.
Perhaps I’m just a natural killjoy but I prefer magic systems to be constructed in a way that treats them as real, i.e. there are rules to be obeyed and recognisable limits on outcomes. The sad fact is I’ve now read all three books and it’s still not at all clear what the context is for this entire conflict. The “fairies” are ruled by the Unseelie Court — somewhat amusingly their base of operation is in the New World. Trust a British author with a sense of irony to make America the source of all this terrorism and potential invasion. As a sticking plaster on this wound to national pride, this is not the New World in our reality — American readers should stay calm. To get to this mirror image version of the New World where the sun rises and falls the other way round, all must pass through a portal. Ah ha! Not only is there a gateway to a transportation system, it depends on a form of lighthouse to guide people from one side of reality to the other. So what we have is the development of an earlier version of life on Earth. Or perhaps this Fay lot came through the portal from this mirror world. Either way, they were here before us and watched us grow up as a species. As in the classic fairy stories, there’s a time dilation effect between our world and the alternate reality occupied by the Unseelie Court. It seems to be about one-thousand of their years to fifteen of ours. When on Earth, they live under hills and in forested areas, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But, at some point, there came a breakdown in mutual toleration. They grew contemptuous of our lack of morals, thinking us little better than animals. Although there could have been a reconciliation, outright conflict was provoked when Dr John Dee built a defensive network of spells to keep the Fay out — the first truly effect immigration controls from the British government.
Why is all this a problem? Well this book seems fairly clearly to signal that the Fey did not create the portal. Although they have natural magical abilities, they fit into a broader system of magic and supernatural powers. Dee is drawing on occult powers and seems to be using a different source of power to control both individual members of the Unseelie Court and as general barriers to movement e.g. the defences built along the banks of the River Thames. There also seem to be other beings around. They may be classic demons or incorporeal beings who can take possession of humans. Not only do we have the transdimensional portal, we also have a real-time communication system through mirrors and a different obsidian mirror with slightly different qualities which John Dee has. So although these three books focus on the conflict with the Fay, there’s absolutely no attempt to give any background on the more general context for working magic, nor is there any explanation for any of the effects we see, e.g. the manipulation of the weather or the creation of different types of land or water-based animals. I have the sense Mark Chadbourn is making it up as he goes along. There’s nothing wrong with this but my money says it’s better for the reader to be able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups in a consistent way.
Anyway, this novel starts us off in 1593 and England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte, is caught up in the latest crisis as Irish spy, Red Meg O’Shee, kidnaps Dr Dee and sets off to export him to Ireland. With the help of John Carpenter, Tobias Strangewayes, and Robert, the Earl of Launceston, we ride over to Liverpool where there are interesting developments. On their return to London, we get the best bit of the book as the Thames freezes. We then flirt with matters vaguely piratical, i.e. we get on to ships of the period and sail hither and thither avoiding adverse weather conditions, pirate and Fay attacks, and the misplacement of the Sargasso Sea, until we arrive at the “island”. This entertains us with a short version of Shakespeare’s Tempest and then it’s off to the New World through the portal.
Overall, there’s a lot of ingenuity on display to keep the action going. Indeed, some of the plots and conspiracies are quite pleasingly malevolent. At times, the fantasy shades into horror which is again a positive sign, avoiding some of the tweeness that can afflict stories involving fairies. I like some of the ideas discussed on the nature of honour and the prices both sides in a war pay to make progress, but there’s not much philosophical development. The good ideas are repeated with little added save that, as we might predict, no-one comes out of this mess looking good. To that extent, the ending is realistic. So The Devil’s Looking Glass continues the standard of the second outing as a reasonably enjoyable adventure romp around an alternate history sixteenth century with some time spent on ships and in a jungle (yawn) but otherwise blending swords with sorcery in a moderately effective way. If you enjoyed the first two, you will definitely enjoy this.
Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press, 2012) is another wonderful collection of short stories from an increasingly impressive small press. This should be required reading for anyone interested in the craft of writing short stories and approached without any positive preconceptions about genre labels. The majority of these stories simply exist. Trying to categorise them would be to diminish them.
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” was shortlisted for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novella and won the 2011 World Fantasy Award. It’s a pleasingly elegant story that flirts with science fiction and fantasy ideas but never really commits itself. Conventional wisdom says that, if you’re going to write a “science fiction” or “fantasy” story, it must contain distinguishable features of either or both genres. So, for example, if there’s going to be time travel, you need movement, say from today to 1901, where folk from the different temporal regions interact and fail to kill each other’s grandparents. Or there should be aliens aggressively trying to market Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters as hair restorer tonic. If it’s supposed to be fantasy, there should be wizards or ghosts or barbarians waving their big swords around. Without such signposts, readers will be cast adrift, unable to relate to a story of three ageing men (one of whom takes his two sons along for the ride), who go on a trip to film the flight of a model plane. Sadly, they can’t rebuild the original Bellerophon, so the best they can do is fly a model and recreate the sense of the old film that recorded the first powered flight (before the Wright Brothers). They want to do this because an ex-colleague is dying of cancer and it will lift her mood if she can see a recreation of the original film. So be warned. There are no alien monsters in the sea or invisibly on land helping people (and things) to fly. And no-one could ever dream of cameras (or model planes) moving between different times. That would be silly. Really, I can’t think why this story is so good.
“Near Zennor” won the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella which, if nothing else, should tell you how well Elizabeth Hand writes. This opening pair of prize-winning novellas makes the first third of this collection outstanding. Yet again we’re in allusive territory. It’s not so much the nature of events described or the ending which is somewhat predictable. Rather it’s the quality of the journey we take in arriving at the conclusion. When the ordinary writer sets off on a supernatural story, we can expect ghosts and various assorted ghoulies. Should the author decide to stray into fantasy land, there can be something fey or creepy spells can be cast for malign effect. Here we have a husband who’s grieving over the loss of his wife. Going through boxes of her possessions, he comes across a locket and some letters marked “Retuned to Sender”. Perhaps not entirely sure why he’s inspired to investigate, he goes on a quest to discover why she wrote the letters and what, if anything, happened to her when she was barely a teenager and visited an author who lived near Zennor in the south west of England. It’s a beautifully sustained piece of atmospheric writing.
“Hungerford Bridge” beautifully captures the loneliness of living and working in a big city. You’re surrounded by millions of people but never regularly find time to meet up with friends and acquaintances. As a rare compensation for this social isolation, the city itself can offer completely unexpected views of a different world in which the sharing between two people advances to a new level. Except, if that happens, there would often be no-one to tell because that would destroy the magic. “The Far Shore” should remind classical music lovers of The Swan of Tuonela by Jean Sibelius. This short story version of the myth tells of a tragic accident that leaves a ballet dancer unable to perform, yet his spirit aches to fly in grand jetés. The idea of wintering at a deserted camp site sounds a good way of reaching emotional balance. The physical peace of the lake should inspire greater acceptance of the need to find a new career. Except one day he finds a half-dead young man lying in the snow.
“Winter’s Wife” is a wonderful story about living life how it should be lived, respecting nature and the environment, and aiming to have strength in the community with all in harmony. Except, of course, there are always going to be some people who are naturally perverse or who acquire such wealth they no longer believe they need take account of anyone else’s wishes or feelings. So how should long-term residents react to the nouveau riche who feel they are not accountable? In this case, we get more than just a stony-faced reaction. “Cruel Up North” is a short vignette creating the mood and then capturing a moment of inconsequential death. Similarly, “Summerteeth” captures the moment when a man and a woman meet again. This time, they are on an island where the man is running a project to interview people about their first marriages. He wants to immortalise their oral histories as they focus on their failures to relate to significant others. There’s another woman on the island as well and a strange story about two missing cats. Perhaps something took them. It’s poetic brilliance to take your breath away without the need for anything specific to happen (or not happen as you prefer).
“In the Return of the Fire Witch” (which first appeared in Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois) we have a story in honour of the preventive strike. When you know the newly elevated King is literally out to get you, the only sensible thing to do is to get him first. Somewhere there’s probably one of those interminable ballads much beloved by lutenists who think they can sing which celebrates how the mighty are brought low by those they despise. With only magic mushrooms to distract and a plangent melody to play, how can this plan go wrong. “Uncle Lou” encourages us to think about whether we ever really feel comfortable in our own skins. Particularly as we grow older and remember how fit and healthy we used to be, the idea of ending our days as someone different takes hold. Then comes the practicality of casting aside all the material things that used to be so important to us and, having said our farewells, we can move into the secret retirement home we’ve kept in reserve. And finally, “Errantry” has our disparate group wander around their old stamping ground and the immediate countryside. It’s not quite a quest but they do contrive to pull off a rescue in rather strange circumstances. Sometimes when you unfold a piece of origami to see how the “trick” is done, even the paper used can have significance — as if the words used on the page somehow gave thought to the final form. A good note on which to end this review of Errantry: Strange Stories because the words this author uses magically produces an infinity variety of forms. You should read this collection!
According to Brandon Sanderson, the author, The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Press, 2012) is set on the same world as Elantris which was the quite spectacularly wonderful first novel he published. In my estimation, it’s now been relegated to his second best book but, if you have not read it, you should. It’s a remarkably assured piece of fantasy writing. For our immediate purposes, there’s no need to have read Elantris to enjoy this novella. Although the seeds of the system of magic are the same, this can be read as a standalone. So what’s it about?
Let me start off with a question for you. Suppose there are two people whose command of the craft of painting is so complete, they can both replicate the styles of well-known and collectible artists. One uses this skill to copy existing masterpieces. He then steals the originals and replaces them with the copies. His motive is the satisfaction in knowing the works on display are fakes but of such high quality, no-one viewing them would ever be aware of the substitution. The other paints creatively in the style of well-known artists. He then “discovers” previously unknown masterpieces and sells them on as authentic. Needless to say, he has to forge documentation providing the paintings with due provenance. But both painters arrive at the same result, namely that their paintings hang on display with everyone accepting them as genuine. Indeed, you could argue that the more people see the paintings and accept them as genuine, the more strongly genuine the fakes become. If you like, the collective belief in their validity transcends reality and gives them a greater veneer of respectability. The more time passes, the greater the public certainty the paintings are masterpieces. Why does this matter? People collect originals for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most important is more than a passing respect for the artist’s vision. When you see the picture, it’s as if you are looking through the artist’s eyes, seeing the world as he or she did. There’s also the attraction of owning something with a reputation — the longer the reputation the better if you are caught on the third reason which is the investment potential. Or perhaps there’s a rather more subtle ineffable emotion, a kind of mystique surrounding the ownership of a genuine example of beauty. Whatever the reason, some people’s lives are built around collecting. For them, it would be very distressing if they were to discover they had a fake hanging on their walls. Yet, in a way, it might suit them to deny such accusations. Admitting they had been deceived would make them look less than expert. It might be better to insist the paintings were real.
It’s the same with people. If you want to pretend to be someone you’re not, the way you present yourself to the world has to be authentic. Mere imitation will never succeed. Everyone has to believe you are real. For example, someone like Frank Abagnale was able to persuade people he was an airline pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and so on. The question, of course, is how you appear to be genuine. It’s all to do with the signs. You have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, adopting the right manner with other people around you accepting your right to occupy that role. The more other people reinforce your credibility, the more likely it is that newcomers will fall into line and also accept your performance as genuine. Identity and status are very much in the eye of the beholder.
So let’s meet Shai. She’s a Forger (note the capitalisation) and a thief — although being a thief is incidental to her primary trade which is using a form of magic to persuade objects and places to remember being something different. Such are her skills, she can make more or less anything appear to be a genuine example of [insert appropriate noun]. This could be changing a crudely made vase into a beautiful jug or persuading a wall it would look better with a hole through which she could escape capture. She has been captured while attempting a rather complex series of substitutions. This is fortuitous because Emperor Ashravan has been attacked by assassins and left as an empty body. The ruling council decides to use Shai to recreate the Emperor’s “soul”. The idea is simple. If she can fake an object, why can she not fake a person so that all around him would accept him as genuine. The fact this person happens to be the Emperor raises the stakes and makes it an interesting challenge. The ageing Gaotona accepts the primary role of go-between while she goes through the creative process. This is just as well because he’s the only truly honest person on the council.
What then happens is a fascinating discussion about the nature of authenticity and the extent to which it can ever be faked. This is beautiful storytelling combined with some provocative ideas about how we view the world and the extent to which we can be manipulated. Although it’s properly to be classed as a fantasy, it’s actually a fake. It’s really literature exploring notions more usually found in dry books dealing with semiotics and psychology. Not that this thematic subtext should deter you. This is pure fantasy — no, really, it is! I unreservedly recommend The Emperor’s Soul. It’s a joy to read!