Being really old means falling victim to the curse of memory. You know weird stuff no-one else cares about, but have the uncontrollable urge to tell everyone all about it. Like remembering the first time I saw Hellzapoppin’ in the cinema more than fifty years ago. It was a revelation. Living in a quiet backwater, experience had taught me Hollywood produced rather dull films, particularly as propaganda or feel-good during and immediately after WWII. This was my first experience of genuinely subversive comedy in the cinema. Now, apart from the Lindy Hoppin’, it all looks a bit desperate and rather sad. For those with hindsight, we can judge how radical it was, appreciate how much it challenged orthodoxy, and then just smile. Sometimes, humour can’t transcend the cultural limitations of time. You have to be in the moment to appreciate it and then have the wisdom to let it go.
For years, I used to think the same problem applied to written humour — that it was forever stuck in its culture. Then, in 1962, I picked up a copy of Catch 22 — the first time I laughed out loud at an American book — shame about the film version. Now I believe it all comes down to the voice. Most of the time, authors aim their creativity at the mass market. This is capitalism in action as, not unnaturally, everyone wants to get the maximum return from the labour of writing. So whatever humour is involved tends to be generic, picking targets familiar to the largest number of people. The result is uniform blandness. It’s all wonderfully inoffensive, usually boring and forgotten quite quickly.
All of which thinking brings me to Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey (the sequel to Sandman Slim). This is not an author aiming at the mass reading audience. According to the demographics, there are more Christians to the square mile across the US than in any other country. Allowing for some dishonesty in answering questionnaires, more than 80% of the population declares some degree of belief in a personal God. Largely following in the Islamic tradition of condemning anyone who mocks their God or His prophets, Christians resist direct or indirect criticism of their beliefs. Marketing this book to them is therefore a challenge. For example, in an early exchange, our hero says to the Devil, “You gave God a rusty trombone and lived to talk about it.” Not something likely to amuse an Old Testament literalist who is probably pissed off that His God has not been making with the lightning bolts to rid this world of blasphemers. That said, there’s actually news that Hollywood may be greenlighting a screen adaptation of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. I suppose the letters will be rewritten so that’s it’s advice from a senior angel on how to guide humans in avoiding temptation and falling into sin. Even 1940’s British satire may be too much for modern America.
Be that as it may, Kill the Dead follows on from Sandman Slim with a completely irreverent first-person narrative involving God, the Devil, a few angels and lesser devils, the occasional vampire, various magicians and, as the title suggests, quite a lot of dead folk. Not forgetting our Sandman who is, of course, an Abomination — like all the best anti-heroes in these end-of-days stories. Although, truth be told, our hero does go a little schizo in the heat of battle and therefore loses some of his acerbic wit for a moment or two.
The most pleasing aspect of the whole is the character development. As our escapee from Hell, James Stark is initially a man on a mission and there ain’t nothing gonna stand in his way as his campaign for revenge rapidly gets out of hand and involves ever more dangerous opponents. Having successfully navigated through to a not-unsuccessful ending in the first book, we now find him working for the “good guys” but, as is always the case, he soon finds himself caught up in a whole new threat scenario. This time, it’s the Devil who’s za popped outa Hell and wants Stark as a bodyguard while visiting Earth. That’s when he’s not offering his expertise to Homeland Security on magical masochism. Yet, there’s soon something strange about Stark. He’s thinking before, during and after more violent episodes. Even to him, this goes against the grain. Indeed there seems to be a whole new unexplored dimension to his personality and physical abilities. Our guess that he must be growing into more of the abilities genetically transmitted by his father is confirmed as the pages turn.
So we have a nicely balanced horror story with associated magic and general supernatural mayhem, developing into a mystery thriller in which we wonder who is behind the plot to stir up all the dead without waiting for the last trump to sound. Told with a positively wicked and noirish sense of humour, readers whizz through to the end as if pursued by the Devil, leaving us hoping for the third episode which is titled Aloha From Hell and due in 2011. This is definitely poppin’ for all who enjoyed the first outing and, unlike Hellzapoppin’ and The Screwtape Letters, will travel well in time. For a review of the fourth and fifth in the series, see Devil Said Bang and Kill City Blues.
“Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!” I was never entirely clear why the robot in Lost in Space thought Will Robinson was a danger to anyone but, in the 1960s, such niceties were ignored and the words became a catch-phrase, trotted out whenever anyone even vaguely geeky was approaching. Now I suggest resurrecting it to read, “Danger! Will Allegory! Danger!”
Meeks (Small Beer Press, July, 2010) is a slim book that has been garnering a fair bit of heavy-weight attention. That, on its own, makes it a challenge to review. With so many other people of note expressing their opinions, it emphasises the need for thinking through the issues. I don’t want to feel influenced one way or the other. Whatever I write here should be carefully weighed, just like what she done in so carefully selecting every word to ensure it says what it means and means what it says. Whatever.
At this point, I offer a word of apology and gentle explanation. I know this site is me endlessly thinking about books, films and anything else that catches my eye. I ramble on and, hopefully, make a few intelligent points. This makes me self-indulgent. In my defence, reviewing is not supposed to be directly entertaining. It’s intended to inform. But Julia Holmes is an author and, as such, is supposed to be writing fiction as entertainment. Well, my working hypothesis is that she is an author desperately trying to impress us all with her cleverness when there seems no narrative point to the heightened language. When you are writing an allegory, particularly an allegory apparently intended to be satirical, there is no need to cram sentences with erudition. Indeed, when you are writing something allusive, clarity and an absence of ambiguity is a virtue.
The world is a complicated place, more so because of incidents like the rather fascinating Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments and the amusing Sokal affair. When a piece is presented in a form not intended to be taken literally and communicated through a heightened form of language, there’s a temptation to assume the author must know what he or she is doing. Take three sentences as examples.
“Empty bottles stood around my brother’s head like concerned townspeople who had found their king unconscious in the street.” “The shadows of the trees shifted along the glass, vague, changing, in collusion with certain of my senses to generate a picture of fear.” “The sun was setting, casting everything in a blue-gray light, the evening air subsuming more and more, until this world would be reduced to a meaningless thicket of shadows: rock indistinguishable from man, earth from sea.”
And just in case you didn’t “get” the title, the leader of this benighted people was Captain Meeks, but the resultant society relies on the meekness of the citizenry to accept the social structures and the death of those who would be the Enemy. Without wishing to get into spoilers, we are into 1984 territory with a war-footing justifying grim repression at home. People are regimented and conscripted into public service if they cannot marry. The symbolism of clothes as signifiers of status enforces rigid class divisions. Everything is sacrificed to maintain productivity and woe betide anyone who is less than hopeful about the future.
So all these elements are put into a bottle made out of pretty words and we are expected to admire the result without questioning the rationality of this city as described. Where is it supposed to be? How has it come into being? How does it survive? If men really do go off to war, who do they fight and to what effect? What form does the government take? There seems to be a skewed gender balance — how do they manage to breed enough to stay viable? Who buys all the output from these factories? And so on. . . Ah, but wait. This is an allegory, so it doesn’t have to make any sense. You just read it for what it is and don’t ask awkward questions.
Well, my apologies. I think the entire exercise is pretentious rubbish. When Jonathan Swift traps three sons in clothes that rapidly fall out of fashion, there is no doubt he is satirising Christianity. Properly directed satire identifies its targets and then savages them. Julia Holmes fulminates but never matches Swift’s Modest Proposal for solving the problem of Irish poverty. All we have in Meeks is potshots at multiple targets, none of which truly strikes home with the venom that should characterise the best of allegory and satire. When Kafka traps K in a bureaucracy, we can all relate to the greater reality of flawed bureaucratic systems. So what social systems are targeted in Meeks? Well take gender roles as an example. Having been a bachelor in my early life, I cannot relate to the experience of the men in this novel. Nor does it work in contemporary terms if we read women for men and impose the biological clock for reproductive purposes. I suppose the theme relates back to the broad condemnation of women who were “left on the shelf” — particularly after wars left a shortage of marriageable men of the right social quality. Yet our modern generation of youngsters has not been bred to prioritise finding a spouse or having a family. This idea of a cut-off point with teeth for each cohort of unmarried (wo)men is absurd. Unless, perhaps, we are supposed to take it as an attack on the malign sexism and ageism that sees older women denied a variety of jobs because of their appearance. Who knows? I could go on but. . .
. . .from all the above you will understand I do not recommend this book unless you are a particular fan of allegory for its own sake.
Game of Cages is a sequel to Child of Fire, and so Book 2 (or 3 depending on how you are counting) of the Twenty Palaces series by Harry Connolly. In many ways, I think Game of Cages rather better than Child of Fire.
For these purposes, I need to repeat thoughts about the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action — there’s more detail on this in the discussion of Bloodline. Essentially, the classical approach is to have all relevant action take place in one continuous period of time and in the same place. For a theatrical production, this gives you a slice of “real life” rather than having to chop and change from one scene to the next.
Books, of course, are never limited by the need to reset a scene on the stage. Cinema is also going through a revolution with the increasingly common use of CGI. Anything can be projected on to a blue screen and so signal a change of scenery. But thinking abut the way thrillers in most media are put together, they aim for their effect by building to a climax against the clock, e.g. because the heroes only have fourteen hours to save the Earth and so no time for sex or, if you prefer it shorter before you get to the celebratory sex, four hours to stop the bomb going off with a Cardinal killed every hour as an appetiser — no pressure there, then.
So back to Game of Cages. Once Ray Lilly, our hero, and the investigator arrive in Washaway (not the beach) in the North Cascades, all the action apart from the epilogue is located in or around in the town — almost as though the town itself becomes a cage. Similarly, allowing for odd hours of snatched sleep, the action is continuous. As they come to the location of the auction where the predator is to be sold, the dynamic duo find the now-broken cage being used to transport the interdimensional beast and, from then on, it’s a dash to save as many townspeople as possible and kill the predator (BTW there’s a larger cage in the outhouse where it had been kept for years). This focus on a single location creates a sense of claustrophobia and allows more suspense to build as we count down to the predator getting all the townsfolk together in one place for a snack.
Pairing our hero with a human who has no apparent magical skills, resets the balance of the book. In Child of Fire, our hero is the bullied Wooden Man with Annalise the boss. Now it’s for our hero to make the running without a powerful magician to back him up. This is both a strength and a weakness. In any confrontations with others having magical skills or in fighting the predator itself, it all comes down to the one guy. We watch him learning fast and adapting. Yet the weakness becomes more apparent as first the appropriately named Pratt arrives on the scene (perhaps the word doesn’t have the same pejorative impact in American English) followed later by Annalise. This should re-establish the pecking order, leaving it to the pros from Dover to solve the case. Except, in the end, it all comes down to our hero. Perhaps this is as it should be since he is the hero. But when he succeeds, it says something interesting about who really does hold the balance of power.
This is where the missing first book becomes really frustrating. There must be something about the way in which the hero cast the spell forming the ghost knife that gives him a literal and metaphorical edge. It cannot have been a routine spell that an amateur would cast. Whatever was done must have imbued the spell and the one who wields it with above average power, perhaps amplified because he has physically been into the Empty Spaces from or through which the predators come. This is the only explanation that makes any sense and, presumably, it means he has the power to become a magician in his own right as the series continues. If this is not the intended direction, then the series may well come off the rails as our human, armed only with a single knife and protected by his tattoos, takes on and beats increasingly powerful opponents. Somehow, I don’t see this character as a Batman in the making.
There’s also a potential problem in the pipeline as Government must be increasingly interested in the man and his current backers, the Twenty Palaces Society. Obviously, it’s very useful to Government to have this type of organisation as a shield (assuming the President and his merry men accept the reality of magic and the threat from predators). But when there’s so much power available, the Twenty Palaces Society could also be seen as a threat to established human power structures. In future books, the point of view must widen to include the broader political situation. The death count in Washout was significant. Many are going to argue that the defensive play was as destructive as the predator’s eating. If such incidents are going to become more common, perhaps formal rules of engagement will be required (even though they will probably be ignored when the fighting begins).
So this is good page-turning action that manages to keep the tension going until the last gasp. It will be interesting to see how well Harry Connolly keeps the series going — episode 3 (or 4) being titled Circle of Enemies. I’m optimistic!
For more pictures from the shoot preparing the promotional book trailer for Circle of Enemies, go to the Wyrd site.
The camera moves slowly through the space, exploring the rooms as if it half remembers them. The furniture stands silently on a polished wooden floor. There are children’s toys. The tracking shot ends on the ancestors.
They give strength and a sense of permanence to the family. Through their hard work and perseverance, each new generation has grown and prospered. They watch over the living as they try to build on what has gone before.
This is a biopic. It therefore has to obey various rules. Whatever is seen on the screen must be explained by a voice over. Talking heads must appear. There must be captions to tell us when and where we are, to introduce us to characters we remember from history. And there must be actors who recreate the lives of these people through the years. There will be babies who become youngsters and then enter the dangerous years of their teens. Parents and grandparents will remind each other of filial duties, and hand down their culture to each new generation as it passes through the home. But make no mistake. This is not a biopic with the sensationalism of Hollywood behind it. This is a quietly confident “Chinese” film, respecting the lives of the people as shown on the screen — allowing them the chance to grow and tell their own stories.
Almost as soon as the camera has shown us the empty space and we have seen the birth of Bruce Lee in San Francisco (it’s good joke about the name — perhaps it’s true) everything that follows revolves around the home. It’s always full of people, the dark kitchen a hub of activity, the mahjong tiles clicking on the tables as the adults play. In this space, people are made and then tested when they go out into the world. Did the parents do the right things? Have the children learned how to survive?
The spirit of the era of transition from before the Japanese occupation to the end of the film when Bruce must leave Hong Kong, is beautifully caught through the role of the father. Here is a man who makes his living in traditional Chinese opera. At first his fame must force him into collaboration with the Japanese then, in the aftermath, he slowly spreads his time between theatre and screen, watching how younger people turn away from the old and begin sampling the novelty of rock n’ roll and the Western lifestyle it represents. Throughout, Tony Leung Ka Fai gives a beautifully nuanced performance, first as the young son in a house of women dominated by his mother, and then through his years as the head of the family. It’s as if he’s carrying the weight of duty and responsibility on his shoulders, but always willingly, never resentfully. At first, he persists in the tradition of opium but, when this exposes him to blackmail, he quits. All his sacrifices are for the good of the family. Christy Chung as his loving wife who gave up status to marry an “entertainer” is fiercely passionate when she needs to be, quietly loving the rest of the time. They are the bedrock of the new generation.
When we reach Aarif Rahman as teenaged Bruce, we find someone going through his rite of passage into adulthood. This is the role that had to be right. You can’t have a biopic unless your stand-in can fill the shoes of the real man. Again, this is not a showy performance. There are moments of great stillness as you see him struggling, thinking about what kind of man he will become. He is fierce in defence of his friends, selfless to a fault, some might say. Yet even as a teen, the flame of ambition burns within him and, when finally harnessed in pursuit of real fighting skills, we see him become more grounded. There’s a telling moment when he explains why he wants to learn Wing Chun (from the Yip Man, no less). He is interested to see whether it offers practical skills. Working in the Hong Kong film industry, he has watched the early “kung fu” movies being made. He knows they are action dramas without substance. When he discovers Wing Chun is real, he learns physical responsibility.
The film is beautifully structured to build to a climax forcing Lee’s departure from Hong Kong. All the strands of early love, the friendship between boys growing up together, and the inherent dangers lurking just under the surface in Hong Kong in general and the New Territories in particular, are woven together to produce genuine drama. It may not be quite the history I thought I knew, but it’s terrific entertainment. Because the family stays calm no matter what is happening around it, potential script problems of melodrama and sentimentality have been avoided. There are some touching and tender moments and, at times, there’s an overlay of sadness. Children always disappoint their parents. Parents must always love their children, whatever they do. Perhaps it really is bad luck for a father to see his child leave the country. As must be the case, there is some fighting. But not as much as you might imagine. This is not about the Bruce Lee who strutted and fought his way across the screen through the 1970s. Here we see the seeds planted by his parents and nurtured by his family. They grow into a young man who fights for his own honour and for the soul of his friend.
This is a genuinely affecting family history. Whether this history is true does not matter. The people we see on the screen feel real and what they do matches our expectations. They live and it’s a pleasure to know them during our time together in the cinema. In every way, this is a perfect way to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Bruce Lee’s birth.
Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)
If in doubt, it’s always better to start off by mangling someone else’s words. It makes a statement about your own standards both as an editor and as someone not at all bothered by the notion of borrowing another’s ideas. So, in my best Churchillian tones, I offer the notion that, “Never in the field of human communication have so many words been offered to so many in service to so few credible narrative purposes.” Or if you prefer Shakespeare, “It is a tale, full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing.” or “It is a tale, full of a raging and discombobulated torrent of images and dreams, signifying nothing.” (page 251, US edition)
As another delaying tactic, let me offer an anecdote from my youth when I was a member of a modestly successful theatre group. On several occasions, one of its bigger egos was heard to boast that he could act through a blackout and still have the audience in the palm of his hand. On a slow night during one scene set around a dinner table with real candles (this was in the days before fire regulations made such recklessness illegal), the lighting crew slowly dimmed across the board until only the natural flickering light remained. As true professionals, the actors kept going and, remarkably, none of the lighting crew were fired. Ego enhanced, the targeted actor dined out on his performance for months thereafter.
Words are functional things, employed by authors to get their meaning across. In writing fiction, the aim may variously be to beguile, delight or, if all else fails, merely entertain. To that end, we writers gird whatever it is we gird when putting fingers to keyboards — does anyone still use pen and paper? — presumably as a protection against repetitive strain injury for those of us who hunt and peck using only the same two fingers.
What’s that? There’s a restless shuffling of feet out there. You’re waiting for the review of Kraken by China Miéville, thinking I should be getting on with it. But this is how I felt as I was reading Kraken. I kept waiting for the book to start and it never did.
Now don’t get me wrong. There’s prose covering some 500 pages and some of it is quite witty and thought-provoking. But words on a page are not enough on their own. The words must be in service to believable characters in a viable plot. What we actually have is a change of style from our author of previously unblemished reputation. This is not the roccoco New Weird, nor the subversive YA Un Lun Dun, nor the noir genre-blurring The City & the City, all of which have been more than merely enjoyable. This is intended as a light froth, a knowing wink to those of us who like H. P. Lovecraft and others who either walk in the same cosmic footsteps or more generally write (old) weird or horror. We are expected to welcome the tropes uncritically (including some geeky Trek stuff), ticking them off as they parade through the pages, and not care that it’s as exciting as reading a laundry list (and not in the Charles Stross sense).
The core problem is that none of the primary characters are in the slightest interesting. We have the naive innocent who has the “power” or “access to hidden knowledge” but does not know what he got, the soldier or loyal sidekick, the not-so-competent witch in thrall to a “special” police unit, a scary couple of killers, a disembodied ancient Egyptian union organiser, the spunky girl who proves determined to get involved and, because it’s Miéville, we’ve got the city what knows more than it’s letting on. Sadly, none of this crew shows any real development as what passes for the plot staggers from one episode to the next. Instead, everyone reacts to circumstances and, as the pages turn, we are sequentially introduced to new cultish groups, none of whom have stolen the damned tentacled-thingy, but wish they had or are generally pissed off that someone else has. Well, there just comes a point when I just throw up my hands and pray fervently to Cthulhu that someone finds the bloody thing so we can all go on to read another book. Then comes the big irony. We do find out who took the pesky mollusk, and we get it back, except that still leaves us having to save the world or London at least.
When we finally get to the end, we make an exciting discovery. Forget your taxonomies, my son. This whole thing’s about the epistemology, init? You may think you know your Darwinism and your Creationism. There’s this whole accumulation of what we know about the history of the world and the species that have lived within it. But suppose we could edit not just our memories of what we know, but also change the knowledge itself. Now that would really be something, wouldn’t it? Almost horrifying, you might say. So let’s all sit down and talk it through, argue the toss or write ourselves a note. You never know who might be watching or listening in.
If this had been held to around 250 or so pages, it would be an excellent read. As it stands, it’s bloated in the real sense of the word, namely swollen with gas so that, like a dead fish, it floats up to the surface. If netted, our fish could then be preserved in a glass case and become the hero of a weird novel. Indeed, thinking back to my youth, it reminds me of an interminable story an actor used to tell of how he acted through a blackout. It reinforced his ego and bored the pants off all who heard it.
This is a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Thematically, the best way to understand Clowns at Midnight by Terry Dowling (PS Publishing, 2010) is to talk about another interesting writer. Although his output of fiction was modest, Russell Kirk managed to produce some particularly effective short stories and three fascinating novels. It’s not important to say much about Kirk here save that, as a US Conservative who espoused Libertarian instincts, he held that liberty is, at its heart, a version of ethics defining self-control. He believed all humans have selfish and expansive appetites but, through “liberty”, they may impose emotional order on themselves. Kirk is not unique, but unusual in that he used supernatural and horror stories as parables through which to explore his political philosophy. In his third novel, Lord of the Hollow Dark, Kirk characterises a diabolical version of Gnosticism in Mr. Apollinax. This man is the novel’s catalyst who preaches a hedonistic New Morality to a group of disciples as they stand at the mouth of a labyrinth. By journeying through this maze, they hope to fulfill their desires. The book is a dialogue between a Dionysian philosophy asserting the possibility of an Earthly paradise through pleasure, and Gnostic salvation for the individual. Yet the point of such salvation is not to stop at the level of the individual. It’s intended to become a form of rebirth for society as like-minded individuals are attracted to each other and, through their shared values, create a divine realm on Earth.
Dowling is playing in a similar sandpit, thinking about how a Dionysian version of symbolism has informed beliefs and cultural practices from the beginning of time. The parallel with Lord of the Hollow Dark comes in the use of the labyrinth or maze. The fascination in complex mazes lies in their potentially infinite nature. In theory, you could wander indefinitely, never able to find the way out and, in so doing, discover something important about yourself and your relationship to your environment. So, in Clowns at Midnight, we have two labyrinths. One is physical and located in the garden of Carlo and Raini Risi, second-generation Australians from Sardinia. The other is the mind of the protagonist, David Leeton. This is a classic unreliable narrator, a man desperately trying to work through the cognitive behavioural therapy lessons given to him as a means of coping with an intense phobia of clowns and associated imagery.
It seems a perfect solution for Leeton to get away from the urban landscape where the randomness of the environment may throw a range of disturbing imagery his way. When offered a house-sitting opportunity in a more remote part of New South Wales, this seems to offer a safe harbour while he internalises the self-discipline to survive. Thus, as with Kirk, we have a man needing to transcend fear through control of his emotions. Yet, he is immediately pitched into situations in which his carefully structured defences are attacked by the things he fears the most. So, from the outset, we must play the game of deciding exactly what is real and what represents the product of his fevered imagination.
What makes our navigation through the labyrinth interesting is Leeton’s internal dialogue as he attempts to be his own voice of reason, rationalising his fears, and hoping to find a better balance within himself. The symbolic thread guiding this search for reason starts with the owners of the house who, like Ariadne for Theseus, leave a copy of Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo on his bed. It symbolises the choice between the rule of disordered fears and a measured existence, between the wild abandon of a Bacchanalian celebration, and something altogether more profound in which the cycle of creation and recreation offers the choice to end and begin something new.
I also note a resonance with the original The Wicker Man — I have not seen the remake — in which an island community sacrifices an innocent Christian to restore fertility. Dowling rejects this form of neopaganism. Although the resolution of the book must have elements of destruction, these should be steps to a new self taken with the consent of the one chosen, i.e. we are witnessing the destruction of the weaknesses that allow disordered fears to infect the mind, and the reincarnation of the old self as a person with new self-confidence and a positive expectation as to the future. Yet even this is uncertain.
We come back to the notion of the unreliable narrator. Much or all of the “action” in this book could be the delusions of a man as he suffers a nervous breakdown. What he thinks he sees or hears inside the house could be simple paranoia amplifying his fears into nightmares. Or there could be genuine supernatural events testing the limits of his behavioural therapy defences. Or what happens could be an all-too-human conspiracy to push him over the edge into madness. People can and do torture themselves. We take this as proof of their irrationality. Similarly, supernatural forces need no reason to torment a human. But if this is the work of one or more humans, what could their motives be? Why should they wish to take a man already struggling with his own demons and undo all his good work to control them?
Dowling manages to pull off a clever technical trick in putting this book together. He has to insert a significant amount of basic factual information about the history of Sardinia and of the use of masks in religion, the theatre, etc. Like Kirk, he must also rehearse some potentially heavy philosophical debates. This could make the tone of the text academic and boring. That he manages to create a real and mounting sense of menace is a tribute to an excellent storyteller on top form.
The physical book is slightly unusual in having the jacket artwork by Nick Stathopoulos laminated on to the boards. I assume this means some copies were presold into the library trade and, rather than selling the unbound signatures, PS bound up the books to library specifications. Whatever the reason, it makes the book more interesting than the usual bland boards.
Overall, this is a real thinking reader’s supernatural/psychological thriller, delivered in a pleasing physical package. Recommended.
As an irrelevant aside since it does not affect the quality of the text, the book was the creative writing component to a doctoral degree in Creative Writing awarded to Terry Dowling by the University of Western Australia in 2006. Our thanks go to Peter Crowther at PS for finally allowing the text to see the light of day.
For a review of a short story collection by Terry Dowling, see Amberjack.
Memories are strange and wonderful things, coming unbidden to the mind as we read, making subconscious connections between descriptions of reality and what we have seen. It’s the fundamental mechanism by which we judge the credibility of any work of fiction. Does what we read match our own experience? Or, for some reason, are we prepared to suspend disbelief? I remember the first car we bought. It was an Austin 7 Ruby and, one memorable day in 1952, we made the journey from our home in the North to London for the Festival of Britain. This was our first long trip and the reason I remember it so well, was the time it took. The engine was prone to fuel starvation due to a wonky carburettor which needed to be primed with petrol to restart. So when overtaken by “disaster”, we had to push the car off the road, dismantle the top of the carburettor, and dribble in petrol from the jerry can we carried for emergencies. I am therefore always highly conscious of time and geography when reading period pieces.
The Silver Skull (Pyr, 2009) by Mark Chadbourn violates my temporal sense. Our London venture was about 250 miles and it took us the best part of a day, stopping at old coaching inns for rest and food. We arrived feeling like death warmed up. The physical shaking and emotional stress of never being certain we could manage another mile, took its toll. Travelling back was just as bad, and we resumed the use of rail for long journeys until we could afford a better car. As I understand it, at their fittest, horses comfortably manage about 6 miles an hour. An exceptional horse could rise to 10 miles an hour, but it would probably kill the beast if maintained for too long. That’s why coaching inns were set about seven miles apart.
So when our heroes travel from London to Edinburgh, this is a journey of about 400 miles allowing for an undeveloped road system. In fact, Chadbourn makes a joke that the quality of the roads drops dramatically between England and Scotland — actually on the east coast run today, the roads become a hindrance just north of Newcastle. Yet, this novel has us in in cinematic territory with thundering hooves carrying everyone hundreds of miles without apparently breaking sweat. Thanks to years of work with Gerard Naprous, I have travelled in a replica stagecoach without the suspension system we take for granted in a motorised vehicle. It’s a singularly uncomfortable and bruising experience. When you add in highwaymen or other horsemen jumping on to and falling off the stage, life gets very interesting for spectators.
So, in the best traditions of romantic fiction, all problems of distance are wished away. We travel to, from and around the Iberian peninsula like it’s our own backyard. That it may actually take days or weeks in the real world cannot be allowed to slow down the action. Except, of course, the big picture action does go slow. We have Spanish agents and the Enemy doing stuff as the Armada is readied in the background. But their timescales are left to hang while our heroes do their daring-do fighting in the foreground. Does this make it a bad book? Not of itself. It’s a fairly standard game played by many authors in writing this kind of fiction, but this is a fairly extreme version of it. Transplanting a James Bond level of mobility on to horses and sail is a big stretch.
Then we come to the Enemy (the Fay). I like to understand the rules of magic systems. This lot seem remarkably temporal for a folk so supernatural. They need horses to travel over land and they have their own galleons. Stick one with a sword and it dies, but they can apparently travel underwater, physically strong doors cannot stand against them, they talk to each other through mirrors, they do good glamour work, and they have a neat line in burglar alarms — every home should have at lest one of these high-tech devices — available from a graveyard near you.
So, in England we have this super magic suppressor system. They can’t do nuttin’ against our magician. Nothing, that is, apart from breaking into the most most secure fortress in London in the first few pages. Their lack of power is then re-established as they are easily intercepted by Pickering’s men when moving the stolen weapon through London. Or, for some reason, does the Enemy hand-off the weapon to Spanish agents? I am easily confused. In Scotland, where the people are denied the suppressor field — it literally stops at the border — the Enemy is still hamstrung, being unable to break through doors protected by “magic” and, worse, apparently not being able to go on to hallowed ground. When rent-a-mob turns up outside their safe house and starts throwing stones, they run off. Hardly the behavior of a credible threat to humanity. I could go on, but there should be some kind of explanation. The English nobility and the Scottish people have had centuries of experience in fighting these creatures. Everyone should know their strengths and weaknesses.
And this idea that the English would attribute all weird events to Spanish agents. . . I know the weather is always bad in Scotland but, every now and then, real people must move across the border and get to see the difference. How come no-one talks about this? More to the point, there must be oral histories and folk traditions passed down through the English generations, bridging the time before the suppressor field kicked in. You can just imagine them pulling up chairs in their local coaching inns, sipping a really good cup of tea, and discussing how best to keep the Enemy from busting down their doors by using salt and herbs.
So although there are some quite good moments in the book, it’s all cut and pasted together without much logic or explanation. And most of the characters are cardboard cut-outs, given nothing to do but stand around expectantly as our heroes do their hero shtik. Perhaps it works for someone who just wants a bit of swordplay in a cod historical context. But for this thinking reader, most of it is really disappointing. The publisher tells us this is the first in a Swords of Albion series. When the next episode is announced, I’ll toss a coin to see whether I can be bothered to buy it. Although, perhaps there’s just enough hope in the ending. The broad themes of betrayal that run through the book hit a rich seam when the nature of the suppressor field is revealed. More of the plot makes sense at that late point. . . I’ll see how the mood takes me.
In the end, I did decide to read the next volume in the series. My review is The Scar-Crow Men.
Good atmospheric artwork from Chris McGrath.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see The Devil’s Looking Glass.