As I have often muttered darkly into my beard when writing these reviews, it’s a case of travelling in hope that the next book will turn out to be a gem rather than the paste replica currently in view. Well the hope has been rewarded with a genuinely innovative piece of writing in My Lady of the Bog by Peter Hayes (The Permanent Press, 2014). This is one of those pleasingly unclassifiable books that flirts with genres as if they had no meaning (my thanks to the publisher for having the cojones to bring this to the market). The subtitle on the jacket tells you with a perfectly straight face that this is An Archeo-Forensic Mystery. I suppose I should explain what that means.
Set in Dorset, a young man is out digging peat when he uncovers a shoe. As this is not an uncommon find, he’s not emotionally prepared to discover a foot inside the shoe. Once he recovers from the shock, the police are called. After all, what little the diggers can see of the body suggest it’s only been in the ground for a short time. As a precautionary measure, the police also call for expert advice and this brings Xander Donne to the scene. He’s an American working a fellowship at Exeter University and knows a thing or two about bodies found in bogs. His first estimate that this is two to three thousand years old proves wrong. We’re only talking hundreds, not thousands of years. But nothing can change the stunning impact of the preserved body. In life she would have been magnificently beautiful. Even in death, she’s the epitome of exoticism and wonder — a fact that has a profound effect on our rather inhibited academic.
As the police dig into the peat to free the body they make two discoveries. First, the body was staked to the ground. The pins have what appear to be runes carved into the wood. Second, there’s literally a treasure trove under the body, a fact that immediately brings the entire find within the jurisdiction of the local coroner who has the responsibility of deciding who now owns the rather valuable objects. When everything portable has been removed to the hospital where the coroner is based, we then have four further events of significance. Xander finds a book among the physical treasure and immediately sends it off to his ex-professor at Oxford for translation. He and the coroner remove the pins from the body. That night both Xander and the coroner report vivid dreams. When the police come to the hospital the next morning to take possession of the treasure, they find it has been stolen. Six weeks later, the man who has translated the book is cut to pieces with a sword.
So as a matter of archaeology or anthropology, depending on which ology you prefer, there’s the question of how this beautiful woman ended up bound and pinned to the ground in a Dorset bog. There’s also the contemporary mystery of who stole the treasure trove and how, if at all, this is connected to the death of the man who translated the book which had been buried with the body. The answers are completely entrancing as the book fails to decide whether anything supernatural is going on. After all, dreams are notoriously unreliable source of information. The mind also plays strange tricks on readers. Some are immediately sucked into the content and feel as if they are actually present at events being described. But, of course, our rational minds dismiss the possibility that physical objects like books can be enchanted, just as the notion of a curse on anyone removing the pins from a body is ridiculous.
So there you have it. The author plays a very skillful game, nicely blending police procedural with historical mystery, adventure yarnery, witchcraft, spells and curses, and modern thriller as our hero, later accompanied by the wife of the murdered translator, confront demons in their our psychological make-up and from the past. My Lady of the Bog is an entrancing read and recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Idiomatic English is great fun because, in a colourful way, it follows its own kind of logic to communicate meaning. So, for example, we have the conventional verb “to urinate” but offer coarser alternatives like “to piss”. Hence, the past participle “pissed” means the individual has consumed sufficient alcohol that there’s an heightened need to urinate. Or to “piss someone off”. . . well you wouldn’t be very pleased if someone pissed on you, that would get your goat (which I’ve always thought should be Satanic and be associated with the preparations for conducting a ritual sacrifice). All of which brings me to the question of tone. In a review like this, it’s perfectly acceptable to use words like “piss” or “goat” because I’m being vaguely academic and, in that social context, the writer can use more explicit language. Connecting goats with the concept of sacrifice usually means we’re into the supernatural and there are certain linguistic conventions readers expect authors to apply to create the atmosphere for chills and thrills. . .
So here comes London Falling by Paul Cornell (Tor, 2013) which is labelled “dark fantasy”. This does not, of course, make it “horror” although elements may have a similar effect on readers. It also could have pretension to be “urban fantasy” because it takes place in London which is, well, urban. So what we have is a police procedural which, inadvertently, happens to be investigating some supernatural events which, because the police officers have rational minds, they do not consider possible and are therefore not investigating. Note the cunning use of paradox here. No police officers worth their salt investigate something they do not consider possible. Until they are confronted by evidence of their own insanity, i.e. the evidence of their eyes suggests the impossible is all too possible. Under such circumstances, what would you do? Well you could begin by pissing on the witch’s soil. That tends to get her pissed off, i.e. it breaks the spell by contaminating the medium through which she projects her power. That was just a lucky shot, of course. Usually the scientific method requires experimenters to engage in multiple efforts at trial and error to prove the effect. It was just a lucky shot that senior police officers usually express their contempt for criminals and the laws that protect them by dropping their pants and pissing on them. Doing what comes naturally is usually the right thing to do.
All of which should indicate my serious dilemma about this book. At one level, there a tremendous amount of invention at work. Some of the detail is wonderful to behold and the way the plot works out is objectively pleasing. In other words, I should be hailing this as one of the best books in the dark or urban fantasy genre. What, you should be demanding of me, do you expect of a police procedural that suddenly dumps three ordinary coppers and a research analyst into a lot of supernatural shit? Of course it’s messy and they flounder around desperately trying to develop theories about how all the magic works and what they can do to protect themselves from it. That’s what you should expect and the book is actually being very realistic in exploring how rational people deal with irrationality. Except. . . Except I don’t think the tone of the book hits the mark. I find it all very interesting and not in the slightest alarming, let alone frightening. So here’s the question back at you. If an author and the publicity machine behind him broadcasts the nature of the book as supernatural fantasy tinged with horror, should the reader not feel a frisson, no matter how slight, of fear?
Perhaps I’m just getting too old. Perhaps my sensibilities have just been numbed by reading all these books. But I don’t find any of what happens in this book even faintly thrilling. I’m impressed by the skill of the narrative construction. I admire the prose Paul Cornell has produced. But, for me, it doesn’t create the advertised effect. Indeed, at times, I was faintly amused and, once or twice, annoyed by the slight jokiness of conflating the supernatural with football (not the American type). For the record, I’m even remotely a football fan. I’ve never actually been to a football match. It just doesn’t strike me as a healthy premise for a dark fantasy book to base everything on fervent support for West Ham, a London club. I understand the passions raised by the game allow the writer to explore structures of memory and myth, but such trivial interests have no resonance for me. As a final thought, those of you who prefer not to read books which have children victimised should give this a miss. Fortunately most of the animals survive (apart from a few pigs in an explanatory flashback). So London Falling may well be your cup of tea. If so, I wish you well.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.
Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.
As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?
Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.
I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).
Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.
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.
Let’s imagine a world in which supernatural powers are real. Up to this point in time, only a few people have developed these powers so it’s been possible for a small number of elite teams within an organisation calling itself Solomon, to keep them under control. The most effective approach was always elimination — simply trying to lock up someone who might have the power to knock down walls is less than practical. But, with a better understanding of genetics comes the ability to identify those who might “awaken”. If you can take them in hand before they become a danger to others, you might actually train and recruit them into your “police” force.
We are therefore into an interesting area of morality. A number of those with these powers are genuinely dangerous so their arrest or elimination is necessary for the protection of the mass of society. Yet the authorities do not wish unnecessary alarm. Governments therefore deny the existence of supernatural abilities, even concealing the “truth” from the conventional police forces. This secrecy has been agreed between world government leaders and the Roman Catholic Church since it has had the most experience in dealing with phenomena classified as possessions over the centuries. Such agreements are wonderful when negotiated by governments. Representatives are one step removed from the reality. Their motivations are also complex. Underlying it all is fear. Traditional methods of manipulation and domination only work if the mass of people can be controlled by conventional policing. If sufficient numbers of people recognise they have some degree of immunity from authority by virtue of their powers, they become a real threat. Governments could fall, to be replaced by those with the strength to insist on their right to lead.
People in power always feel they have the right to defend themselves and, of course, thereby the people they govern. So having those with the gene act as your policing agency is dangerous. What keeps them loyal? Even if you spy on them, how can you know whether they are conspiring with the “wild” talents to bring you down. How much better it would be if you could replace all these “natural” talents with super-soldiers. With the power to turn their powers on and off, you control whether they can threaten you. So there must be research into precisely how this gene works. Can its effect on the human body be replicated? This is a delicate time for all.
Witch Hunter Robin focuses on the Japanese unit of Solomon whose active members comprise Michael Lee, a hacker serving out a period of detention, but now using his skills for “good”, Haruto Sakaki who is young, inexperienced and likely to get into trouble, Miho Karasuma who is a kind of walking CSI, using her powers to interrogate objects and places to “see” who was present and what they were doing, and Yurika Dojima who is the most interesting as the true nature of her role emerges.
It all begins as Robin Sena arrives as a replacement for a lost member of the team. This is her first posting to Japan even though she was born there. Her early years were spent in a convent in Italy. As a result she’s somewhat shy. Her powers, though, are potentially strong. Except something seems to be holding them back. Her “secret mission” is to investigate whether there’s any truth to the stories of a talisman that enables those with her “craft” to reach higher levels of performance. After some confusion, she’s teamed with Amon. This is a slightly Gothic romance in the making. She’s sexually repressed but potentially powerful. He’s older and obviously has an aura of danger and mystery about him. One of the first things she discovers is the Japanese use of a strange green liquid called Orbo. It appears to act as a kind of shield for those who carry it. It also absorbs the powers of witches and is used in darts to subdue “wild” witches. After a slightly slow opening in which we observe the team at work, we home in on the three key issues. What is this talisman that Robin has been tasked to find? What exactly is Orbo and where does it come from? What happens to the “wild” witches when they are taken off to the Factory?
Inside the Walled City, Robin tracks the talisman, eventually coming into possession of her full powers as a witch. In this she’s assisted and protected by Amon and a part of the fascination of the serial is watching how they move past mutual suspicion and eventually join forces. All this takes place against the background of competing research projects by both the Japanese unit and Solomon which, working with the assistance of Father Juliano Colegui — Robin’s mentor and legal guardian in Italy — has been advancing its own understanding of genetic manipulation.
So, if what you want is supernatural mayhem, this serial provides an escalating series of fights as different levels of skill are pitted against each other. In the early episodes, we see the inexperienced threats taken down quite easily. Towards the end, the professionals emerge from the shadows and we begin to see how far the craft may be able to develop. The reality of the talisman or relic is also a pleasing idea. It’s an application of the old adage that knowledge is power. In this case, it’s also empathy and understanding. Perhaps all you need, sometimes, is to be able to see the world through a new pair of spectacles. This might give you a different perspective.
But the serial is significantly more than fighting. The complexity of the relationship between Robin and Amon holds everything together as she grows into her powers. There’s uncertainty and not a little fear but, in the end, she emerges from the shell that was built around her in the convent and enters the real world of adult emotions. With that comes the confidence of someone who finally understands herself and how she relates to the world, past and present. For once, this is anime treating a female lead with respect. Indeed, none of the female characters are drawn as a sex objects. For most of the serial, all the women are demurely dressed with Robin herself almost completely covered, wearing clothes not unlike the habit you might expect a nun to wear. Except when she goes on the run, of course. Then she must grow into the role of a bicycle courier with a nifty helmet and cool shades. It makes a welcome change to see women allowed to be competent without the artists wanting to look up their skirts.
In all the good senses of the word, this is an adult serial. Today, many use “adult” to refer to the market for pornography and, in the case of much manga and anime, there’s a considerable amount of soft porn to be found (see Sex, Manga and Anime). Witch Hunter Robin does not fit into this model. It’s a story raising intelligent issues about how society relates to an individual or a subculture that is “different”. Should a people challenge their own prejudices and try to assimilate or accommodate difference in some way or, as in the Japanese reaction to outsiders, maintain a policy of excluding the different from society, if necessary, permanently. In Japanese culture, the precondition to being an ‘insider’ is to be born Japanese. A non-Japanese is Gaijin, an ‘outsider’. Robin herself is anomalous in these terms. She was born in Japan but too clearly shows European sensibilities. Even without her talents, she would be considered a foreigner to be driven away. To this extent, this serial is written for adults who like to think about social issues while watching some good fighting.
The serial was created by Hajime Yatate (the house name collectively for the creative staff at Sunrise) and Shukou Murase, and produced by Sunrise. Throughout all, the music of Taku Iwasaki is literally spellbinding. It’s one of the best scores produced for an anime and I recommend you acquire a copy. Put all this together and you have one of the better anime serials of the last decade. It’s not outstanding because it’s poorly paced. The first set of episodes are interesting, but do not advance the plot. Once the script allows us to work out who’s doing what to whom and why, it’s almost going too fast as one revelation follows quickly upon another. So redistributing the elements and restructuring them into a more coherent narrative would have produced the ideal result. Nevertheless, Witch Hunter Robin remains highly watchable and one of the better serials for those who like intelligent supernatural mayhem. As always, I’m indebted to Autumn Rain for the screen shots.