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Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47

June 30, 2011 2 comments

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

The question of who will dare join the support staff for Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) is a nice plot idea. The issue is simple. Dong Yi has come from nowhere so she represents a terrific opportunity for established court ladies to arrive at the top of the social heap with one jump. But if Dong Yi fails, anyone who joined her will be cast into the outer darkness. Only the most willing volunteers can be accepted, and it’s not even convenient to accept all of those who do step forward. Fortunately, the King has finally managed to get past the first kiss and Dong Yi is moderately safe in her new role. This encourages some to be brave enough.

Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) and the King (Ji Jin Hee) finally have their moment

The issue of the border defence logs finally resurfaces. This was threatening to be really bad continuity. As it is, it’s only bad continuity. Dong Yi should have immediately handed over the logs, rescued Shim Woon Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon) from exile and introduced Sul-Hee (Kim Hye-Jin) as a back-up witness so that Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) could be brought down. But we cannot have our enemies killed off too early with so many episodes left to fill. We have to see Jang Hee-Jae humiliated as the maitre d’ of palace functions. After all, as a man notorious for his patience, there’s no-one better to field complaints about the food and poor service.

Although I understand that the King (Ji Jin Hee) wants to keep the common touch going and he does recognise that Dong Yi feels more comfortable outside, he’s getting more testy when the drunken Young-Dal (Lee Kwang-Su) drools over Dong Yi. Let’s hope the warning shot finally penetrates the thick head of the comic relief musician and we don’t have to watch the King get murderously jealous and petty. It rather spoils his image as an easy-going kinda royal guy.

The plot to make everything think Dong Yi is out to kill the Crown Price is moderately ingenious. Except what illness could possible only affect people of one particular class? The answer, of course, is no illness and, with much application of brain power, she deduces the answer (which, incidentally, is the second murder method in Agatha Christie’s Death Comes At the End and in several other mysteries). Now it’s down to collecting proof and Court Lady Jung (Kim Hye-Sun) gathers the loyal members of the Surveillance Bureau to track down the villains. However, with timing everything to prevent suspicion falling on Queen Jang (Lee So-Yeon)’s mother, everything is swept back under the carpet and the more ingenious plot can move forward.

Kim Hye-Sun as Court Lady Jung checks on one of the ladies who have fallen ill

If you can’t easily catch someone in a murderous plot, you have to attack their reputation. The move by Queen Jang to promote Dong Yi catches everyone by surprise. But the promotion depends on Dong Yi disclosing her parentage. Since her father was a convicted murderer, this is inconvenient. Fortunately, Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) and Sul-Hee have manufactured evidence to conceal Dong Yi’s identity. They set off to collect it while the King secretly orders Chief of Police, Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) to investigate her background. Unfortunately, when the King recounts recovering Dong Yi from the cliff top where she claimed her parents perished, this rings alarm bells. When Seo pulls all the old records out of storage, he’s convinced of Dong Yi’s parentage and, when he confronts her, she admits it.

Cheon Ho-Jin plays Choi Hyo-Won, Dong Yi's father as a noble commoner

To recap the earlier history, Seo was a junior officer from a good family and very friendly with Dong Yi’s father, Choi Hyo-Won (Cheon Ho-Jin) who was the leader of the Geom-Gye or Sword Society which ran an underground railway to help escaped slaves. At the time, there was a series of murders with key figures in the nobility being killed. Despite his own father being killed, Seo is left in charge of the investigation. He hears evidence framing Choi Hyo-Won. When arrested, his friend admits it. As a result, the King orders all the family and clan members killed. During the massacre, it was Seo who let the young Dong Yi go.

When Cha Jeon-Soo returns with the false evidence, Seo threatens to arrest him, but Cha Jeon-Soo explains why the confession was made. At the time, Seo did not have the political support to investigate the families actually responsible for the murders. Indeed, being seen to doubt the evidence framing Choi Hyo-Won could have exposed him to great danger. So, to protect him, his friend confessed. Now Seo has the chance to set matter right and gives the King the false evidence, explaining away Dong Yi’s connection to the Geom-Gye. This leaves him determined to get to the bottom of what happened. Now he does have the status and royal protection to identify those actually responsible for the deaths, including that of his father. More importantly, it focuses the King’s attention on Dong Yi’s birth as a commoner. Whereas, before, the King might deceive himself into believing that he was protecting the interests of all citizens equally, now he has Dong Yi as a positive reminder to be more active in defending the “ordinary” people against predatory nobles.

Kim Dong-Yoon as Shim Woon Taek ambushes Kim Yoo Suk as Jang Hee-Bin

This just leaves us with the border logs. With Shim Woon Taek rescued and joining the Dong Yi family, he brings a sharp mind to bear on her situation. Local society looks on with interest as a major Chinese delegation comes to town. It brings news that the “boy” is accepted as heir. Without hesitation, Shim goes to confront Jang Hee-Bin. This comes at the wrong moment because the Chinese envoy has just told Jang Hee-Jae that the logs were fake. He gives three days for Jang Hee-Jae to come up with the right logs or the acceptance of legitimacy for the heir will be withdrawn and the King will be told of Jan Hee-Jae’s treason. Based on the conversation and on what he discovers when he visits the Chinese envoy, Shim works out the situation. The problem is how to exploit it to bring down the Jang family.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

The Men of Justice or Fa Wang Qun Ying — review of episodes 21- 35

June 30, 2011 4 comments

Continuing on from our major climax in episode 20, we’re back with the more routine stuff in The Men of Justice or Fa Wang Qun Ying. Ben (Kenneth Chan) has become increasingly concerned he should somehow atone for defending high-profile criminals, and is therefore taking cases on a pro bono basis. Hence, he defends one of the support staff from his chambers accused of impersonating a police officer, finds a defence in provocation for a karate expert with testicular cancer, and helps an illegal immigrant who gets arrested so that he can get free medical treatment.

 

Patrick (William So) continues to get into even deeper trouble, first with this wacky woman played by Lulu Ng who has now moved into his home, and then in another possible act of sexual misbehaviour, this time in a public toilet. Poor guy. He’s forever on the brink of disaster.

Kenneth Chan, Lawrence Ng and William So enjoying a moment in their favourite watering hole

 

Joe (Lawrence Ng) now tries to find a middle course with Joyce (Cynthia Ho). She’s recovered from the overdose and he’s trying to hold everything at a level of friendship, hoping this will avoid any repeat of the apparent suicide attempt. When there’s a second overdose, the hospital makes a different diagnosis, leaving Joe with a difficult choice.

 

Maggie (Amy Chan) and Henry have not been talking about Sandy’s behaviour, but there does come a point where a more conservative Henry does feel he can no longer stay silent. This is not to say Sandy has been uncontroversial, for example, announcing she would like a sex change operation.

 

We continue interesting social issues like whether schoolboy bullies can or should be prosecuted if they kill their victim, whether an exorcism that “accidentally” kills a man possessed because of an undisclosed heart condition is homicide. Equally, whether disabled riders in electric wheelchairs who race each other along pavements should be liable if a child steps out in front of the leader and is killed. There’s also good evidence that the fat detective played by Lam Suet framed a man for murder and then tried to get him locked up again for assault immediately after he had been released.

Amy Chan without the horsehair wig

 

The major criminal continues his reign, more confident now he’s escaped the first major trial against him. In this second set of episodes, we see his roving eye get him into trouble with his girlfriend who feels vulnerable to loss should her sugar daddy disappear. Yeung Wai Sam (Jackie Lui), our undercover operative, is now more formally working the criminal side of the fence, but feels insecure despite the deal he thinks he’s done with his leader. All this is sporadically rumbling along in the background when the girlfriend pays for a hit on our kingpin. She immediately admits her role so her life is going to be short as the kingpin’s father swears revenge. This finally gives us the chance for some continuous rather than intermittent action. Our attention switches to the sexual and investigative tension between Madam Winnie (Pinky Cheung) and Sam. There’s no opportunity for romance scorned in this series. More deaths follow in a slow build up to an increasingly bloody climax.

 

All of this signals the continuing problems with the structure of the narrative. It’s an unfortunate collision between the real and the unreal. The individual cases continue to be interesting social commentary on life in Hong Kong. I have the sense these should be the real focus of the show. But to keep the plotting within safer political waters, all this is defused by increasingly absurd romantic melodrama. Taking Patrick as an example, it’s not unknown for men to be socially accident prone. We’re all human after all. But this character is written in a completely unreal way. He cannot be the boring lawyer his wife remembers if he behaves like this. Similarly, Joe has one girlfriend leave him and come back dead (possibly a suicide). Then he is stalked by another who is more clearly mentally unbalanced. Ben avoids social contact because he fears blackmail. All the characters in this show have weaknesses and problems at the heart of their lives. Although we don’t expect everyone to be boring, this is elevating the melodrama to such unreal levels that it undermines the credibility of the characterisations. I believed in CSI’s Gil Grissom because he was the ultimate nerd who created the niche he wanted to occupy. But this series has one of its CSI staff, perhaps recovering as an alcoholic, moonlighting on catching serial killers. This is when not performing autopsies and not being the alternate love interest for Joe. Indeed, her not being Joe’s girlfriend produces Joyce’s second suicide attempt. The script writers are trying too hard to create as many crises as possible with only a few characters available. This requires a heightened set of features for each person. So our fat detective is socially on the verge of sexually harassing every female he meets, generally appearing somewhat stupid, while having a nephew killed and his brother tried for homicide. No stereotyping there.

Jackie Lui working undercover

 

Despite all this, there’s a level of convergence and some degree of closure as we approach the final episodes. Ben slowly grows more comfortable with what it means to be a lawyer who makes some of his money by representing hardened criminals. Patrick is finally allowed to escape from the wacky one and, barring future accidents where he may be accused of yet more sexual peccadillos, he can look forward to a quieter life. Winnie grows increasingly concerned that the criminal justice system is broken and, when she tries to take the law into her own hands, ends up in hospital. Despite trying to maintain emotional distance, Joe is linked to Joyce who’s fading away fast in front of his eyes. When she dies, Joe is overcome and, like Winnie, decides he has had enough with systems that wait for clear-cut evidence before being able to act. The most interesting end comes for Queenie (Joey Meng) who may have found someone with whom she can end her life (played by Marco Ngai). The most boring end comes for Maggie who seems as though she’s going to end up with Henry, the ultimately “safe” pair of hands. This from a woman who can manipulate her position to help a Judge reach some level of peace with his family and give a senior lawyer a chance to avoid conviction for homicide. Henry has more on his plate than he realises.

 

Overall, The Men of Justice or Fa Wang Qun Ying is one of the better serials out of Hong Kong. Although it pulls its punches a little bit, this second set of episodes has a more gritty feel than the first and, although the romantic entanglements are somewhat tiresome, the series ends with a quite pleasing moment as our three male heroes walk into a police station to resolve a minor problem.

 

For the review of the first twenty episodes, see The Men of Justice or Fa Wang Qun Ying — review of episodes 1 – 20.

 

Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

For some reason, the summer season is associated with big crowd-pleasing blockbusters. When the sun is beating down and there are so many distractions outdoors, the studios release the films they believe will pull the crowds. In many cases, their choices are really bad. It can just be that the particular script-writing committee and associated focus groups were particularly poorly co-ordinated so the plot emerges in a chaotic state. More often, it’s obvious the cast were only interested in taking the money and finishing as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, the summer is often the graveyard of the studios’ hopes and expectations.

Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung finding humour in the moment

 

This year from Hollywood has been no exception. There have been some real stinkers. Looking in the other directions, there have been some good films from Europe and one or two excellent offerings from Hong Kong and China. Well, the mould has now been broken with the arrival of Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan from the remarkably prolific Jing Wong. This just goes to show that, whatever Hollywood can do, Hong Kong can beat if it puts its mind to it.

Huang Yi and Charlene Choi relegated to eye candy roles

 

Welcome to the wacky world of wuxia comedy. When this fires on all cylinders not only is the fighting superb, but the laughs flow as well. Treasure Inn is a classic example of how not to do it. I suppose the starting points for this pastiche were Dragon Inn or Long men kezhan (1967) and Dragon Inn or Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) which are wonderful straight fighting films set in a remote desert inn. So, as a modern director, you pick your targets carefully. This will have the Inn act as a haunt for criminals who auction off stolen goods to the highest bidders, making it a lure to all the best thieves who want the top return on their skills. In this instance, it’s all about a jade life-sized Goddess of Mercy. A gang of raiders hire a criminal mastermind to steal it for them and pass it on at the Inn. Standing in their way is an elite group of police agents led by Captain Iron (Kenny Ho). Also involved are Nicholas Tse and Nick Cheung playing bottom-feeder officers, left to do household chores by their corrupt local officers. When they insert themselves into the investigation, they are accused of being the thieves and then make a break from jail thanks to the efforts of Fire Dragon Girl (Yi Huang) and Water Dragon Girl (Charlene Choi). Needless to say, this pairs off our “heroes” — you can tell this is love at first sight because of the red hearts that burst across the screen when their eyes meet. Yes, some of the humour is that primitive. The other element of romance is between Tong Da Wei as a doctor in love with Ling Long (Liu Yang), the lady who runs the Inn.

Liu Yang floats around showing she's in charge of the Inn

 

Perhaps it’s an age thing but, when I watch a film, I want it to make sense. I can understand why the corrupt local police would want to drive the innocent do-gooders away, but why they would stay in the face of this relentless abuse is unclear. What makes this a problem is that, when the murders and theft of the statue occur, they are fast to insert themselves into the investigation and obviously ambitious to be recruited into Captain Iron’s troop. Later, when accused of being the robbers, we have slapstick torture and then the rescue by the cross-dressing ladies. There’s no attempt at explanation of why one of the ladies should be locked up with our heroes, nor why the three should be sentenced to death without any kind of trial. I suppose we have to have the ladies readily agree to go to the Inn because that’s the way love works in these films. I could go on but you should understand that, except in the broadest of terms, there’s very little logic or consistency of characterisation at work in this film.

Tong Da Wei looking dangerous in a different film

 

I might have forgiven all this and accepted the one or two laugh-out-loud moments as compensation if the fighting had been any good. Sadly, we are into poor cutting to hide the lack of good fighting sequences. You can always tell you’re in trouble when the use of sound as a weapon is so heavily featured with red blades of doom being cast off the guitar strings while a lion’s roar comes back. Even the CGI storm that rages around and eventually destroys the Inn is embarrassingly bad.

 

It’s rare I emerge from the cinema unable to find a single redeeming feature. While accepting that humour often does not cross cultural boundaries, it’s possible this film is aimed at mainland Chinese markets and they will all fall about laughing from start to finish. Certainly, much of the humour is lower common denominator and basic — as in the usual argument about who such suck out the snake venom from one of our hero’s buttocks — so if cultural stereotypes are true, this will make a lot of money. Worse, there’s little passion in any of the three romances to distract us, and the fighting fails to deliver anything entertaining.

 

So even when Treasure Inn is scheduled on terrestrial television, think twice before spending time to watch it.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan (2008)
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)

For Heaven’s Eyes Only by Simon R Green

June 28, 2011 1 comment

There are two questions floating around in my head after finishing For Heaven’s Eyes Only from Simon R. Green. The first is, I suppose, rather trite: what do we expect from a book? The second: what’s the effect of humour when it doesn’t match our own? As to the first, I could talk about wanting to be entertained or hoping for some intellectual stimulation. We pays our money and we wants good value. So, in our search for a book, we cast about for authors who can lift us up when we’re down, can give us a white-knuckle ride when we want thrills, can offer us the brain food to keep our mental processes ticking over, or whatever. That’s what these marketing gurus get paid to do when they classify books by genres, hoping to pander to our expectations through the jacket artwork and the blurbs. So how should we react when what’s billed as a fantasy/horror book turns out to be attempted humour?

Well, I suppose there’s humour and humour. Sometimes an author can invert our expectations and have fun subverting the genre. In short doses, such playfulness can actually be very amusing as our barbarian with rippling muscles turns out to be a gay librarian, or we glimpse the life of our prime minister as a Vegan vampire. Notice I said “short” doses. The problem with one-trick ponies is that, as the name suggests, their repertoire of tricks is limited and, after you’ve seen the same thing three or four times, the experience quickly grows boring. So you couldn’t write an entire novel about a straight orangutan appointed as a librarian, but you could get a smile by briefly meeting him in a novel about something else.

So let’s take this head-on by briefly considering two other authors. In the Laundry novels and short stories, Charles Stross explores Lovecraftian ideas in different styles. So, for example, The Atrocity Archives “borrows” from Len Deighton, The Jennifer Morgue channels the James Bond films while, theoretically, The Fuller Memorandum draws on Anthony Price. Notice how the targets to pastiche or lampoon change so that we don’t get too tired of the joke. Moving on to Kim Newman, he created the character Richard Jeperson based on the 1960s and 70s television shows The Avengers, Department S, and so on. These stories are a mostly affectionate look-back at the kitsch culture of the time, again varying the themes so we can be reminded of the horrors of the time without being overwhelmed. In a sense, my test for accepting or rejecting such work is whether the joke drives the plot or the plot just happens to include elements we might recognise from other work. This gives us a kind of litmus test to decide whether the story can stand on its own or is only “good” because it apes another’s style or creativity. To answer this for Charles Stross, I think the best of the Laundry stories draw their inspiration from the Lovecraft universe while mocking the idiocy of bureaucracies and drawing inherent humour from the situations in which the characters find themselves. Depending on the readers to recognise ideas from the work of others is a slippery slope to unoriginality.

Simon R. Green in an environmentally friendly setting

So back to Simon R. Green and For Heaven’s Eyes Only. This is the fifth in the Secret Histories series about Eddie Drood/Shaman Bond and his ever reliable witch partner, Molly Metcalf. Essentially, Green is out to have “fun” with everything even vaguely Bondian. This runs the gamut from incorporating versions of entire scenes from Bond films — like that bit in Tomorrow Never Dies where Bond has only seconds to steal the plane and fly it away from the mountain-top, weapons-for-terrorists sale convention before the cruise missile launched by the British navy hits — to sly little jokes and references that only the true aficionados would pick up. If you can be bothered to wade through all the detail, you can’t help but admire Green’s determination to pack every last possible joke in the text, no matter how feeble. Except, no matter laudable this input of effort, it’s all for nothing.

The real problem lies in the completely unsympathetic nature of Eddie Drood. This is a man in a suit of impermeable armour who, when his dander is up, will kill every one and thing he considers “evil”. It’s like he and the other Droods are on a holy mission to exterminate the bad guys. This is tiresome. When they can just stand there and absorb more or less whatever the enemy throw at them, there’s no sense of danger or hazard. These are men who can decide who lives so, to put it mildly, when they are not personally at risk, their morality in killing the opposition is decidedly grey. For Shaman Bond, we also have the Adam West/Batman syndrome. Wearing my Batman disguise, I’ll just sit at this table in the back of this busy restaurant and no-one will notice me. So Shaman Bond infiltrates meetings, stands at the back or next to the bar, and becomes invisible until it’s convenient for the enemy to notice him. I don’t mind an author making the same joke once or twice but, like the other repeated jokes, it gets tedious as the series continues.

For Heaven’s Eyes Only has a weak plot with the overall effect depending on you liking a non-stop James Bond pastiche. In other books, the cliffhanger ending might have rescued some of the situation and led to enough curiosity to generate sales for the next in the series. Unfortunately, it just caps the idiocy of what has gone before. How can this be a surprise to Eddie and Molly when their protocols call for regular contact with the other Droods? Since this book goes on for 368 pages, you’d better be a real fan to read it and find it exciting all the way through. If you’ve already read the other four, to embark on this as the fifth volume requires a degree of fortitude I can only vaguely understand. It’s so far above my own levels of courage and endurance as to be almost superhuman.

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

The Five by Robert McCammon

We are who we are. If we’re lucky, we’re reasonably happy with who we are. That helps us through this vale of tears without too much pain. For the less lucky, there’s the constant grind of having to do our best when not enough people around us care what happens to us.

The Five (Subterranean Press, 2011) is a book about people who are professionals. They all want to succeed at what they’re good at. It can be playing music, or making deals as a manager, or remembering what it was like when you could hold a rifle and put a bullet through a man’s head at 500 or more yards. Yet life has a way of not co-operating. When you want to push forward, it pushes back. So what do you do?

Let’s approach the answer to this question from a slightly obscure direction. Whether you’re young or old, it’s strange when you look back at your life. In your head, you can remember so clearly when, against the odds, you triumphed. How you threw the perfect pitch when it was needed or played the best guitar solo since the days of Jimi Hendrix. Yet most of the time, you were just average. You had your own high standards and, by those, you were rarely any good. Except, every now and then, you did raise your head up above the parapet. You joined a group and, when everyone gave you their emotional support, you were accepted as good enough most of the time. At some point, maybe you even became good enough to make a living out of the skills that gave you the most satisfaction. Well, perhaps it might be an exaggeration to say you earned enough to live on. Particularly those in the creative world. The stories of writers starving in garrets and bands on the road using their own savings to pay their way round the circuit of no-hope dives, playing for pride, ever watchful for the A&R men who might recognise their talent and give them a recording contract. . . They’re all true. It’s the pursuit of dreams that keeps them going. It’s trying to make a consistent reality of those few memories of greatness they treasure in their heads.

Robert McCammon. You remember him. He wrote all those great horror novels years ago and then dropped off the radar. Sad when that happens to a talented author. Then he was back with the Matthew Corbett books. Now comes The Five. Well, perhaps the title is a little off since there are actually six of them on the road if you count the manager, but that would make it even less clear who the thumb is (sorry, in-joke). And then there really are only five still alive, albeit with one in a hospital ICU, as a deranged sniper stalks them. Let’s face it. There’s nothing like being the tethered goat to bring out the best in people. Hey, that’s not very fair, is it? Tethering the damn goat. Perhaps it might be better to let it drive around the countryside with the words, “human target” stenciled on the side of the van — the FBI hijacked the description from the comic book and television series as a challenge to keep the stalker motivated and therefore catchable.

There are wonderfully evocative passages like the time the band sees the girl give water to the blackberry pickers and the explanation of how Stone Church got its name. This is the old Robert McCammon, magically weaving words to hint at supernatural threats, at menace beneath the surface. Yet the whole is a taut and economical thriller about a band on the run (literally), albeit with ambiguities about how they may just be pawns in a greater game. Except, of course, all such supernatural shit has no place in a rock musician’s world. If the band is going to move people and change the world, the only way it can be done for real, is through the lyrics to a perfect melody. That would be an example of art. Yes, even a rock musician has a holy grail. In this case, the quest for the song they will still enjoy playing in twenty years time. Not some anthem they can belt out to get a club full of fans to sing back to them. But something that can speak to everyone who hears it and, as individuals, they can all believe the song is speaking directly to them, giving them a message about life, the universe and where the next burger is coming from.

So how do you write such a song? The answer is by accepting all the shit the world throws at you and soaking it up as part of life’s great experience. As a naive youngster, you can rarely ever say anything profound enough to appeal across the spectrum of cultures. You haven’t lived enough. You need maturity. You need to have been there, got the T-shirt and have the wit to write it down in a way that allows others to share in that experience. So this band goes through the mill and comes out the other side with a song. Not all survive and, in the end, the survivors accept change in their lives. This means they are growing as artists and thereby better able to inspire others.

Irrespective of how you might choose to classify this book by genre, e.g. as mainstream fiction with rock n’ roll overtones, a thriller about a band pursued by a sniper, or faintly supernatural fiction, The Five is one of the best reads so far this year. Here we can observe a beautifully detailed set of characters struggling to survive in a hostile world. The stresses and strains of communal existence in a band on the road are nicely captured. It all feels authentic. Everyone we meet on this journey gets their moment in the sun as we see into their lives and understand how their family and other relationships work. Even the crazed killer comes out as someone we can understand even if we have little sympathy for him. This is Robert McCammon on his very best form and I unhesitatingly recommend The Five to you.

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

Here’s a piece of good news: nine of McCammon’s early books, The Wolf’s Hour, Mine, Blue World, Swan Song, Mystery Walk, Stinger, Gone South, Boy’s Life, and Usher’s Passing are back in print as e-books. If you have not already read them, now’s your chance to catch up. These are classic horror novels!

For a review of another book by Robert McCammon, see The Providence Rider.

The Council of Shadows by S M Stirling

The Council of Shadows is the second in The Shadowspawn series, following on A Taint in the Blood, by S M Stirling. In general terms, the book is classified and marketed as urban fantasy. This is not unreasonable since the plot is about a superior species of Homo Sapiens that’s been eating us since the dawn of time. So when you walk down the dark city streets, the next vampire or ghoul that starts nibbling on one of your extremities — without your permission, of course — could well be a shadowspawn.

In theory, these are really dangerous creatures. They not only have the usual bloodsucking, shapeshifting predator thing going, but also a whole range of other supernatural abilities ranging from some degree of precognition to low level psychokinetic ability. In other words, if you took each of these skills and attributed them to creatures prefixed by were, or to vampires, witches, warlocks, and those lucky SOBs who win the lottery, you’ve got them all in one package. The reason why we’ve seen signs of these creatures throughout our history is because these hominids have been interbreeding with us through the generations. So while the purebloods are really powerful (because they interbreed), there are a lot of halfbreeds with low levels of the supergenes, who only fitfully display one or more of the attributes.

To add to their general capacity for meanness, they are also blessed with the cat’s habit of enjoying play with the prey. This leads to gratuitous cruelty and torture, both physical and psychological. Fear makes the blood taste sweeter. Since they link at a psychic level, this can trap the prey in a form of living nightmare where the human can experience being chased and eaten repeatedly.

S M Stirling alone at the table with nothing to eat

The leader of the more dangerous faction is Adrienne. Opposing her is her twin brother (and the father of her two children — don’t ask) Adrian. At the end of A Taint in the Blood, Adrian rescues his human lover, Ellen Tarnowski, from Adrienne and, after marrying, they set off on a campaign to stop the Council of Shadows stepping out into the light and taking over the world (again). Unknown to them, Adrienne did not die (these pesky creatures are damned difficult to kill, what!?!) and now lies in recovery, still plotting world domination. The local police are trying to work out what happened when Ellen’s home burned to the ground, and Harvey Ledbetter, another pro-human shadowspawn, plots to wipe out the Council by acquiring a nuclear bomb. Yes, there will be collateral damage, but that’s a price worth paying to save humanity from a tailored outbreak of disease, nuclear explosions in our cities, or EMP blasts to disable all our technology (although preventing the nuclear power stations from melt down might be challenging for the shadowspawn).

Having all that out on display should set us up for an exciting ride as our love birds come under attack and Harvey moves inexorably closer to getting his bomb in place. Except the book lacks any real kind of tension. Apart from the odd nightmare, Ellen is untouched by trauma. She’s just emerged from being under Adrienne’s claws for six months and now she’s enjoying sex on her honeymoon in Italy. While full-blown PTSD might slow us down a little too much, some adverse reaction to the torture would offer us some credibility. As it is, we’re obliged to read through pages of fairly wooden dialogue between the newlyweds as they slowly unwind and then move off to Paris to recruit a scientist to investigate shadowspawn powers. Although there’s mild fighting in Paris, we’re then immediately pitched back into the spycraft undercover work to discuss which culling method to prefer against us quick-breeding humans. It’s all so faux-civilised as the food comes in gourmet style, accompanied by the very best wines.

This leads me to a more general reservation about the way in which the narrative is developed. Initially, I said this book was classified as urban fantasy. If you look at the jack artwork and read the blurb, this will reinforce the impression. Given the state of the market, this is a not unreasonable way to sell a book these days. But the reality is rather different. Although we’re dealing with beings who exhibit supernatural powers, a major talking point throughout is the science of it all. Yes, friends. It’s what we’ve all been dreading as urban fantasy meets science fiction. Our happy couple recruit one scientist and team him up with another from the first episode. Together, they begin a major scientific exploration of the “power” in an underground lab. This leads to very jarring changes of pace. There are some heavy-going passages of speculation and observation where we’re supposed to be interested in how our spawn interface with the power. These are seeded through the fantasy bits where different individuals fight or snack on the local human wildlife. For me, this rather destroys the tension. If we’re reading a horror-oriented fantasy, we meet the heroes and learn to love them, then follow on through an escalating roller-coaster ride of threats until they emerge relatively unscathed at the end. If it’s a science fiction novel, we also have heroes to care about as they come under threat and use their scientific knowledge to survive. But I’m thinking S M Stirling couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to write, so produced a primary set of fantasy elements, with second-tier characters to do the scientific work. Instead of these elements reinforcing into each other, they clash in style and tone. Worse, we also have a human police investigation that makes little progress as a third-tier narrative element.

I’m not saying The Council of Shadows is really bad, but it’s a series of unhappy authorial compromises that left me feeling uninvolved and, at times, rather bored. With a better focus, the creative work invested in this world could have produced far better results. Indeed, it does build to quite an interesting point as the cliffhanger to take us through to volume three but, by then, it’s all too little too late. If you enjoyed the first, then this develops the story in a reasonably interesting way and you’ll probably like this one too. Otherwise, you’ll need a stiff drink before starting and keep it topped up to carry you through to the end.

Jack artwork by Chris McGrath.

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

For reviews of other books by S M Stirling, see:
Shadows of the Falling Night
The Tears of the Sun.

A Kingdom Besieged (The Chaoswar Saga 1) by Raymond E Feist

You remember Gaston don’t you? He and his family have lived in the valley for generations. They planted their vines before we were born and, every year, they harvest the grapes and make the wine. Their wines are famous. People keep buying them, anyway. Well, Gaston is a distant relative of King Thingy III, on his mother’s side which is always unusual. Terrible scandal it was. It all had to be hushed up. And so it goes on.

Raymond E Feist has something of a track-record in a parallel field. He’s an author. Sadly, not related to anyone terribly royal. And the Riftwar Cycle has been wheeling away for nigh on thirty years. It’s a remarkable performance, dealing with the seemingly endless complications between Midkemia and Kelewan, although we are mostly on Midkemia surviving the unstable political situation as the different “states” ally with each other and fight each other and “others”. In fantasy stories, there must always be fighting. This is, of course, complicated by the multiplicity of different races inhabiting these worlds. Where would be be without a few elves and a dwarf to toss when life gets boring. Not forgetting the Valheru and their dragons. You just can’t have a good fantasy without there being dragons, now can you. Which does leave the Pantathians who, being snakes, are naturally cold-blooded killers.

Not that I’m against this kind of thing. After all, many generations of winemakers do make a living out of the same vineyards. But, as the world learns how to make and enjoy wines, buyers can now choose from tens of thousands of different labels. For any one of them to become a recognised brand requires both quality and good marketing. Ah, yes, that vital ingredient. No matter how good a product or service, it will never sell in numbers unless people know about it and understand how good it is. Word of mouth is unreliable but powerful when momentum builds up. What everyone really needs to get them started is someone pushing their marketing pitch.

Raymond E Feist showing a darker side

Well, here we are with the first book in a new series for Raymond E Feist titled The Chaoswar Saga. This first volume is called A Kingdom Besieged. For those of you who like counting beans, this is the twenty-seventh book set in the Riftwar Cycle universe, and the publicity machine is cranking up the fanfares to herald the arrival of this latest title. Not for nothing is Feist an author who gets on to the New York Times bestseller list. Fans and the curious alike must be encouraged to dash to their computers and blitz Amazon into submission until it delivers millions of books to expectant readers.

So is this much-hyped addition to the Feist oeuvre any good? Well, it opens with a bang. The Child Prologue is great fun, but once we get to Midkemia, we hit the inevitable compromise. Like many, I have not read any Feist for quite a long time and I can’t remember who everyone is. In fact, truth be told, with my advancing years, I have difficulty remembering what I did last Tuesday. So Feist plays a game with us, trying to infodump enough of the backstory so we can all enjoy the new version. Except, by my crude reckoning, this adds about twenty pages to the first hundred and really acts like a sea anchor — that’s the variety you throw off of the back of the boat to slow it down during stormy conditions. While a set of brakes is useful in boats and cars, authors should only increase the drag factor when absolutely necessary. That Feist feels he has to include so much background says a great deal about his trust in readers to have good memories or be prepared to flip through earlier books to remind themselves what happened.

Once we’re all up to speed and the characters have hit their marks on the stage, the pace of the story picks up. The invasion fleet sails from below the Peaks of the Quor in the south of Great Kesh. Missing reports from his spies, Jim Dasher smuggles himself aboard one of the supply vessels and begins to get an idea of the scale of the effort, the most northern part of which strays into sight of Pug’s island retreat. That Dasher should end up discussing matters with Kaseem abu Hazara-Khan, his opposite number in the spy business, is an unexpected bonus. In a lone mission, Sandreena is also following the logistics trail. It seems sudden wealth has come to the people of the south of Kesh. As she investigates, she also falls in with an unexpected group. Back at Castle Crydee, Martin and Bethany prepare to defend a siege as the first Keshian boats come ashore, yet they are surprised when the people disembark. Unknown to Martin, his father dies in a skirmish with goblins. This leaves it to his younger brother, Brendan, to try leading sufficient troops to raise the siege. When they finally meet, it’s Martin who takes command as the older brother. Back in Roldem, Hal and Ty find boredom too much to bear and get into the action, but without covering themselves in glory. Finally, in the demon realm, the development of the Child is fascinating as she assimilates ever more information and comes to a better understanding of who and what she is.

In other words, after a slow start, A Kingdom Besieged all nicely boils up to a rather clever invasion plan. Except, of course, it’s not at all clear who’s invading whom with unseen enemies at work to destabilise the status quo. If you’re a long-time fan of Feist, then this flows on with the greater narrative arc. You can skip all the boring explanations at the beginning. Should you be new to Feist, this is not a bad place to start. As the beginning of a new series of books in the same universe, there’s enough background information so you can mostly understand who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Either way, it ends up a good read.

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

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