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Innocence by Dean Koontz

November 28, 2014 1 comment

KoontzInnocence-2

Spoiler alert. For once I’m going to talk about the plot is some detail so, if you prefer to come to this book without preconceptions, do not read this review.

As a lifelong atheist, I feel I’ve been the victim of some discrimination. Back in the 1970s and 80s, I read most of the novels by Dean Koontz (including those written under the various pseudonyms), but slowly grew tired of the style. Having taken my thirty year sabbatical, I therefore thought it would be interesting to see what the latest book was like. It’s called Innocence (Bantam Books, 2014) and, as you can see, the jacket artwork shows a scene featuring a lonely man in a hoodie, standing in the middle of a snowscape. It creates the impression that this man is a threat of some kind and that, as the book develops, we’ll go through the usual supernatural or horror thriller format of this man preying on the innocent or acting as a vigilante to protect the innocent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the plot has this figure as a victim who hides himself away from the world. Worse, the final third of the book retrospectively converts the novel into an explicitly Christian and specifically Catholic tale. When the publishers design books with Satanic or other themes which they believe might upset the Christians, they put warning pictures and words on the jacket. There’s nothing on the jacket or blurb to warn atheists that this book is going to be deeply annoying.

So what do we have? This is a first-person narrative of a young man whose entire life has been blighted by his appearance. When he was born, the midwife wanted to kill him. This set the pattern and, had the mother not lived in a desolate house deep in the woods, he would not have survived. When he’s eight-years-old, his mother announces she can no longer stand him and throws him out. As he hides in the woods around the home, he sees his mother commit suicide so you can tell his appearance must be horrendous. At this point, all the options are on the table. He’s physically disabled in a very disturbing way. He’s hairy like a werewolf. He’s the antiChrist. To maintain suspense, there are no clues — our narrator is very unreliable and never describes what he sees in the mirror. When he comes to the city, he’s rescued by another older member of his “kind”. This man teaches him survival strategies and shows him how to live underground. Unfortunately, they are out in the early hours of the morning, having fun, throwing snowballs at each other when they are challenged by two police officers. As the man takes off his mask, the officers are so horrified, they immediately open fire and empty their guns into him. This distraction enables the young man to escape.

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz

Fortunately, our hero meets a young girl. On the night her father was murdered, she escaped rape when fourteen and has been living a reclusive life while trying to collect evidence that will prove the man guilty of the murder of her father and the attempted sexual assault. They team up and then have one of these intense twenty-four hours in which several people are kidnapped and/or murdered, they go on the run, and the world as we know it ends. It seems the North Koreans are the agents of the Devil and have released a virus that will wipe out most of the human race.

This girl had a father so rich he could leave her with ten places to hide, one outside the city, miles into the countryside. This is very convenient. Further, to maintain security, only one other man is supposed to know where these places are. So she can safely play hide-and-seek around the city. Except how does she maintain all these places? There must be people who go in to clean and tidy, do the washing, and keep the refrigerator stocked with food. It’s not a problem financially. There are millions stashed away in different accounts and trust funds. But it’s the logistics of all these people going in and out of these places and never talking about it. No burglars ever break in. The pipes never freeze and burst during the winters. Then we have her remarkable powers of foresight. She can set up meetings around the city as the snow begins to fall, and she and the narrator will always end up at the right place at the right time for the plot to work. No, sorry, this is just the author moving the characters around so the plot will work out. There’s no suggestion she has supernatural powers of foresight.

And who are this pair? Well, by now you should be thinking they are the “reincarnation” (sorry, wrong religion) of Adam and Eve. Except that’s not quite right. They are pure innocence. In a photograph, they would look perfectly normal. But face-to-face with “ordinary” humans, they radiate a judgmental field in which the humans are immediately aware of all their sins. These poor folk are so horrified by the extent of their wickedness, they immediately set to and aim to kill the innocent one(s). To add insult to injury, there are also angels and devils floating around. In the end, the innocent survive the plague and go off to repopulate the world (a task which may take some time, so God provides manna to avoid the need to eke out dwindling food supplies). This makes Innocence an Armageddon novel with God providing the means for humanity to get a second chance. But this time, they are starting off with those who retain their innocence and are free from original sin. That should give the future generations a better chance of avoiding sin and walking in the path of righteousness. I suppose I have to classify this as Christian fantasy. In less polite mode, I can think of better ways of describing this literalist biblical belief in a God who judges humanity not worth saving from the plague. He just presses the reset button and starts over. So if you are a Christian who wants to see your worldview affirmed, this is the book for you. Otherwise, ignore the author’s name and the jacket design. Innocence is not a horror novel. It’s a waste of your time.

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

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Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan

April 14, 2014 4 comments

Hollow-World by Michael J Sullivan

Hollow World by Michael J Sullivan (Tachyon Press, 2014) is an interesting blend of the ideas in two classics: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Perelandra by C S Lewis. Both are books about threats to utopia: one as a form of political allegory, the other as a different version of events in the Garden of Eden. Huxley postulates a world in which material needs are provided to a genetically engineered population of controlled size. When John, the Savage, is introduced to this class-structured society, the superficialities become apparent and the book begins an argument with itself as to what might constitute an optimal form of society. Perelandra is the second book of a trilogy which, as an extended metaphor, examines the nature of Christian faith, and debates how society might develop if we lived according to spiritual rather than material values. Although this book in the trilogy is more didactic than the first, all three manage to transcend the limitations of the more cerebral approach to debate and hold interest because none of the books present answers with certainty. They are exploring the issues to see which answers might have the best fit to the questions posed.

On the face of it, Hollow World is a time travel book, yet that’s to completely misunderstand it. In Perelandra, our protagonist, Ransom, is flown to Venus in a block of ice. That has to rank as being one of the more absurd methods of space flight ever put on paper. But the ice casket does what it’s supposed to do, i.e. transport us to the metaphorical planetary context for the action. So, here, Ellis Rogers, our extraordinary mathematician, failed husband and poor father, builds a time machine in his garage which is just an excuse to move us to the “future” where a form of utopia exists. It doesn’t matter whether the machine makes any sense in terms of mathematics or physics. It’s just a literary device.

The world our protagonist finds has had to adjust to a cataclysm on the surface by moving the surviving population underground. At first, this sanctuary was ruled by capitalists who then, quite literally, had a captive market to gouge. This went well for the rich until one enterprising inventor distributed the plans for a Maker (the ultimate 3D printer). At a stroke, this liberation if not socialisation of knowledge produced what’s apparently an altruistic society in which everyone has what they need for material survival. Money has been rendered unnecessary. There’s also been a radical change in reproductive technology with gender abolished and everyone cloned to be physically the same. Medical advances have given such an extended lifespan, it might just as well be termed immortality.

Michael J Sullivan

Michael J Sullivan

In cultural terms, this has interesting repercussions, particularly when there’s a possibility of producing a hive mentality where everyone would be linked telepathically. Theoretically, this would remove the possibility of misunderstandings between individuals, make the transmission of knowledge and experience from one “generation” to the next automatic, and so on. Of course, many fear change and prefer the limited practice of individualism. Even though all the bodies may physically be the same, people are free to decorate themselves with different forms of clothing, and to apply tattoos or other forms of signifier to accentuate their differences.

Ellis Rogers is considered unique not because he’s travelled through time, but because he’s inhabiting a male body which has aged naturally and he considers himself perfectly normal. No-one else in this society could consider true physical difference a normal part of the everyday process of social interaction. Just think. A world in which there are no physical differentiations based on race, colour, gender, and so on. This is not to say there are no status discriminations based on intellectual abilities or psychological characteristics. But, as described, this society has outgrown many of the social problems that have afflicted humanity throughout the ages.

It’s always going to be difficult for an outsider to make reliable assessments of those around him but, in this case, the normal indicators are missing. For better or worse, the first person he meets is the appropriately named Pax. This person is an arbitrator who has accepted the role of social troubleshooter, helping others to adjust to long lifespans, keeping depression at bay, and resolving the inevitable disputes. Sadly Pax comes too late to offer his services to the first murder victim this society has seen for a long time. Yes, our hero finds the body. Such are the burdens protagonists have to bear when landing in future societies. Pax proves to be a catalyst for a different view of this world to emerge. Once the antagonist steps into the light, we can get into the slightly more conventional plot, but it’s nicely rooted in the probabilities of what might have survived from earlier times.

Summing up, it’s interesting to see how Michael J Sullivan has developed in the craft of writing. If you look back to the first fantasy, Theft of Swords, the style is rather elliptical and spiky, focused on delivering the narrative without worrying too much about the niceties of settings and characterisation. This book sees a much more assured craftsman at work with a nicely balanced piece of prose. The plot also moves us along and, allowing for the fact there’s an ongoing discussion about social issues and the role for God, if any, Hollow World delivers an interesting debate about social issues of contemporary relevance. It’s well worth picking up.

For review of the first books in the fantasy series, see:
The Emerald Storm
Nyphron Rising
Theft of Swords.

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

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick

March 11, 2013 3 comments

Blasphemy

Blasphemy by Mike Resnick (Golden Gryphon, 2010) is, as the title suggests, preoccupied with material that may be taken as showing a certain lack of reverence for Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Judaism. So if you are sensitive on matters of religion, this is probably not the book for you. We have five short stories and two longer pieces that were originally published as free-standing novels. “Genesis: The Rejected Canon” is quite a pleasing joke, nicely paced with a good punchline. “God and Mr Slatterman” shows that some bartenders have real people skills when it comes to dealing with difficult customers who might interrupt a crap game at a tense moment just to talk metaphysics. “The Pale Thin God” is a very elegant inversion of expectation demonstrating that judging cause and effect is always a matter of perspective. “How I Wrote the New Testament, Ushered in the Renaissance, and Birdied the Seventeenth Hole at Pebble Beach” is probably the most successful of these short pieces with the true story of the Wandering Jew while “Interview With the Almighty” is less successful — it tries too hard to be amusing.

One of the old favourites when it comes to fables about typecasting is the story of the scorpion that wants to cross a river. After some negotiation, he persuades the frog to carry him with the predictable results. “Walpurgis III” is a very elegant variation on this theme, albeit with more types to make the political point clearer. Let’s start with the psychopathic personality who has refined his skill set to such a point, he can rapidly rise to leadership roles where he’s able to kill increasingly large numbers of people. Up to a certain point in society, it’s the job of police officers to catch the killers. Unfortunately, some killers rise to a point where they become untouchable. Indeed, the increasing irony is that it becomes the job of the police to protect the psychopathic leader. Then there are the politicians, i.e the thinking members of the community who were in power before the psychopath came along. They have to decide what their role should be. Finally, some politicians may decide the best course of action is to hire an assassin to dispose of the leader. This will be an individual who has supreme skills as a killer. He will not judge the task given. It will be irrelevant whether the target is considered a good or bad person. The individual is motivated by the nature of the challenge and the financial rewards. At his level, he can pick and choose which tasks to accept. The idea of penetrating a leader’s security and killing him might very well appeal to him. The result is beautifully orchestrated, switching between the assassin, the policeman and the leader as required. Although the tone is rather different, it reminded me of Wasp by Eric Frank Russell in which a one-man terrorist operation disrupts a world. Thematically, this has a world that’s on the cusp of destruction through the actions of the new leader but only a few truly understand the extent of the danger. The arrival of a single assassin has an increasingly dramatic effect on the lives of the people who live in the vicinity of the leader. Mike Resnick is very careful to strike a balance between the mechanics of the morality play, the description of this rather unique planet, and the excitement of the assassin’s progress towards achieving his goal. It’s a terrific read even though it works out in a fairly predictable way — or to put it another way, the resolution accords with the most commonly accepted principles of morality. To explain the relevance to the theme, the planet has been settled by all the different cults and groups who believe in satanism and the other sources of dark magic.

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

Mike Resnick exposed to radioactive blue

“The Branch” is playing the most interesting game of the book. Many moons ago in the late-1950s I read Messiah by Gore Vidal. It wasn’t much liked by the critics of the time. They were more inhibited by social convention in those days and the somewhat violent satire on the Christian Church was deeply unpopular. For those of you who have not read it, the primary figure is John Cave. He’s a professional embalmer and so does not consider dying to be a bad thing. When he begins to talk about this belief to the world, a new religion springs up. When he’s assassinated, the meaning of his words is taken up by theocrats who end up ruling over the USA. As an atheist, I’m more comfortable with this exclusively naturalistic approach. The notion one man’s moderately innocent words about the need to accept death might, through televangelism, become the basis of a new credo, is an interesting study in the politics of religion. With the suicide rate rising fast as his followers begin distributing the new drug Cavesway, those with access to power must decide how to react. Mike Resnick, however, muddies the waters by having his figure be a not very bright young conman who slowly comes to realise he’s literally the Messiah the Jews and other followers of the Old Testament have been waiting for. This is not, you understand, a good and inspirational person. Indeed, early on he decides he’s going to challenge a local crime boss for a share in his business. It’s only when bullets seem not to have a permanent effect on him that he and the crime boss come to recognise he’s something “special”. The virtue of the story is that it never blinks. Both the Messiah and his Nemesis behave as you would expect as they struggle to understand the implications of the young man’s arrival and how the world should react. Since one of the expectations of the Messiah is he will restore the Kingdom of Israel in Jerusalem, the current government feels somewhat under pressure when the reality of the “man” and the number of his followers become clear. The other established churches are also disconcerted because this man’s arrival tends to suggest Jesus was not quite what they thought. On balance, the first half of the story is more successful than the second. Although I think the development of the plot is not unrealistic, I feel it lacks conviction. Things happen because they must to produce the ending the author wants to achieve. This leads us away from what I suspect might be the more realistic scenarios. This is not a serious criticism. There is quite a pleasing quality to the conclusion, although I think the epilogue unnecessary.

Put all this together and Blasphemy proves to be never less than interesting at, at times, rivetingly exciting. Mike Resnick proves himself a master storyteller who can take controversial material and make it genuinely entertaining.

For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Dark Faith: Invocations edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

January 8, 2013 2 comments

frontcover_02

Dark Faith: Invocations edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon (Apex Publications, 2012) is a themed anthology looking at the phenomenon we call faith. As a word, it’s actually rather interesting. In its more literal sense, it refers to the constancy of a belief. The trust is so complete, the belief is held even though there’s no empirical evidence to verify it. So what gives rise to such confidence? The answer comes in the more connotational levels of meaning. Something must happen to create the trust. It starts as an intellectual process as the person learns about what others believe. This knowledge on its own is not enough. When the knowledge is absorbed, the person must decide to join the others in believing the knowledge to be true. The question, of course, is what persuades each person to become dogmatic in the belief? It’s a transformation of great significance, moving from intellectual understanding to a creed upon which to base future identity and behaviour. The point of this anthology, therefore, is for each author to offer a different view of this process for creating faith and understanding the limits of the faith, if any.

 

“Subletting God’s Head” by Tom Piccirilli has a nice sense of humour about what it would be like if you could move into God’s head as a tenant with Jesus just down the hall and the Garden of Eden on the third floor. In a relatively short piece, it challenges us to consider what our relationship would be with a deity as a landlord who knows our sins and has a track record of throwing tenants out of third-floor Gardens if they break the house rules. “The Cancer Catechism” by Jay Lake is a moving autobiographical piece translating his continuing experience as a cancer patient into an exploration of how it feels when the reality of death has to be confronted. “The Blue Peacock” by Nick Mamatas introduces us to the Yezidim. This is a Kurdish religion. It’s considered by some to be a heretical branch of Islam that worships the Devil. Alternatively, they believe that God placed the world under the care of seven angels led by Tawsi Melek, the Peacock Angel. As a distant relationship, this works well but there might be unfortunate side effects if Tawsi Melek actually arrives to administer human affairs, i.e. it might lead to lots of shitting unless you can be born again.

 

“Kill the Buddha by Elizabeth Twist is a wonderful variation on “alien invaders from another dimension”. This time, it’s the Buddhas and they’re back to make us feel good about ending it all. Thank God (that’s the Christian one, of course) for warriors like Gretchen and Scott. With them fighting on our side, humanity stands a chance to avoid transcendence — assuming that’s a bad thing, of course. Pursuing the idea of a fighter, “Robotnik” by Lavie Tidhar asks how a soldier gets through each day knowing the next combat situation could be his last. This will be all the more challenging for the advancing generations of cyborg troops. What will they believe in when their bodies can be repaired, their minds reborn? The answer is elegantly tragic. “Prometheus Possessed” by Matt Cardin switches to a different battlefield where a society comes under attack from a contagious psychic sickness. Only those Curers working in Psychic Sanitation on the frontline of diagnosis and treatment can keep safe the society resulting from Global Reformation. Unless, of course, the Sickness itself cannot be detained and treated in physical terms. Or perhaps ironically the Sickness will be a cure for society’s ills.

 

“Night Train” by Alma Alexander is about a woman who finally sees an end to the personification of her hopes and dreams as emotional winter comes. And yet. . . the Spring follows. She learns that, to persist through the dark night, all it takes is a little faith or faith from a little one. “The Sandfather” by Richard Wright deals with the tragic reality of bullying and shows one boy’s attempt to find happiness. “Sacrifice” by Jennifer Pelland asks the question we’d all rather not consider. Suppose God is real and He makes us a “one-time, life-or-death, take-it-or-leave it” offer, would we accept it? This is a delightfully cruel answer. “Thou Art God” by Tim Waggoner is elegantly cynical on the downside of godhood and the whole omniscience/ omnipotence thing. I mean who’d want that! In the same breath, “Wishflowers” by Tim Pratt tantalises with the magic of the old childhood game played with the seedheads of dandelions. He offers the idea we all need someone to show us the way but how far should sharing go? “Coin Drop” by Richard Dansky offers us a slightly different version of the apple-in-the-Garden trope. Free will is a tricky thing. To take the apple or not? To be or not to be. Now that would really be a good question. Similarly, if we think in Big Bang terms, the beings you would get with your “Starter Kit” by R J Sullivan would only be tiny specks of life. Even with a distorted time sense, they couldn’t possible be real in our sense of the word, could they?

 

“A Little Faith” by Max Allan Collins & Matthew Clemens shows that, when you’re praying for rescue, you need to know God works in mysterious ways (if you’re lucky, that is). “The Revealed Truth” by Mike Resnick gives us the background on the Miracle at Miller’s Landing and explains why the resurrection was only transitory. “God’s Dig” by Kelly Eiro sends our hero digging for the truth in his own backyard. “Divinity Boutique” by Brian J Hatcher sells the God you need for the truth buried in your heart. “The Birth of Pegasus” by K Tempest Bradford recasts the moment Perseus killed the Gorgon as a kind of mirror Oedipus complex by surrogate that allows a daughter to kill her mother to better understand her. “All This Pure Light Leaking In” by LaShawn M Wanak suggests it might be dangerous to hold a séance and try calling an angel. “Fin de Siècle” by Gemma Files takes us back to the idea of the Peacock Angel and shows us a different way in which art and religion may intertwine and devolve into decadence, addiction and death.

 

“The Angel Seems” by Jeffrey Ford demonstrates the extent of the problem that can arise when a newly created angel turns on God. It undermines the people’s faith in Him and may lead to a more general rejection of the deity. “Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A Snyder suggests angels might remember it for us wholesale — so long as they survive the transformation, of course. And talking about transformations, “A Strange Form of Life” by Laird Barron suggests a new variety of cordyceps — those parasitic fungi — might be able to infiltrate humans in a warm underground environment. Now that might really produce flowers of a different hue. “In Blood and Song” by Nisi Shawl & Michael Ehart magic flowing from African gods helps fighters survive when a riot breaks out. It’s also possible this may signal the start of a new cult. The thing about cults is they usually start small but can grow dominant. “Little Lies, Dear Leader” by Kyle S Johnson tells of the dangers faced by missionaries in countries under the leadership of someone strong. When the evangelisers go, they leave behind those who have heard the call but now need to survive. Finally, “I Inhale the City, The City Exhales Me” by Douglas F Warrick sees a confusion at multiple levels between male and female, Japanese and American, manga and reality. If no-one’s entirely sure who they are, how can they relate to each other when their belief systems are so far apart?

 

Taken overall, Dark Faith: Invocations is a highly successful anthology, ranging in tone and content across religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, while flirting with magic and other belief systems. We run the gamut of sincerity, honesty, irony, cynicism and humour, something to be treasured when so many editors and publishing houses choose not to explore the darker corners of faith. There are some outstanding stories here and, no matter what you believe, this is a book worth reading.

 

Dramatically effective jacket art by Anderzak.

 

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

 

Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011)

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Detective K Secret Of Virtuous Widow 2011

Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil (2011) is based on the mystery novel Yulnyumoonui Bimil (열녀문의 비밀) by Kim Tak-Hwan, and proves to be a highly entertaining Korean version of the newly emergent passion for relocating Sherlock Holmes into different environments and giving him more flaws than deductive reasoning powers. This follows in the faintly comic but adventure-based tradition now established by Guy Ritchie except, for a change, we’ve moved back in time. We’re at the end of the eighteenth century in Korea during the reign of King Jeongjo (Nam Sung-jin). The actual year is 1793 so we overlap the lifetime of Warrior Baek Dong Soo with the King’s succession, and Sungkyunkwan Scandal with the move of the capital at issue. This film focuses on a financial crisis. It seems the collection of taxes has been hijacked and, instead of vital funds flowing into the royal coffers, it’s disappearing into the hands of one or more high-placed nobles. Worse, every time anyone gets close to uncovering one of the links in the chain that diverts the money, the suspect dies from “natural” causes. Alarmed at this obvious conspiracy, King Jeongjo issues a secret order to Detective K (Kim Myung-Min). He’s to identify the mastermind(s) and bring him/them to justice.

Kim Myung-Min looking in command of the situation as as Detective K

Kim Myung-Min looking in command of the situation as as Detective K

 

Our first real sight of the man confirms him as a genuine talent. Unfortunately, it’s for falling flat on his face as he attempts a martial arts entry into an arrest situation. However, when he recovers his composure, i.e. is able to stand up, we’re given a quick flashback to establish his credentials as an investigator as he deconstructs a “suicide” scene to show why it’s actually a murder. Following this chain of reasoning, he identifies the local city governor as the killer and exonerates Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su), the dog thief the forces of law and order were chasing. When this governor is later found dead in jail, Detective K demonstrates his talent again by being the first on the scene and finding the long needle used to kill him. The prison guards naturally run into the jail and arrest him — he does have the murder weapon in his hands. This puts him in the same cell as the dog thief who demonstrates the more useful art of escape by digging a tunnel.

Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su) showing he's perfectly comfortable with dogs

Seo-Pil (Oh Dal-Su) showing he’s perfectly comfortable with dogs

 

After a madcap chase, our escaping duo take refuge in a barn used to store both grain and milled flour. Seeing the chances for an explosion, Detective K sends his new Watson off in search of fire while he delays all the chasing soldiers inside the barn. As he fights, he creates ever more dust in the air. When Watson returns and throws in the glowing branch from a fire, the barn is demolished and our hero is saved although crisped round the edges. Our newly minted duo are about to follow a clue into the countryside when they are diverted into a meeting with the leader of the Noron party, Minister Lim (Lee Jae-Yong) who seeks to use his influence to ensure his daughter-in-law will be treated as having died as a virtuous widow. Shortly after our duo’s arrival in Jeokseong, an area famous for growing wolfbane, they encounter Han Kaek-Joo (Han Ji-Min) who seems to be responsible for all the trade in this region. Detective K now reveals himself as susceptible to a woman’s charms (which are prominently on display) and so begins the unravelling of the heart of the mystery.

Han Ji-Min as a merchant of considerable talents

Han Ji-Min as a merchant of considerable talents

 

One of the major themes running through the film is the relationship between the newly reintroduced Christianity and the long-established Confucianism, a battleground of faith that reveals the extent to which Confucian ideals were holding the nation’s development back. For all there was increasing prosperity thanks to the relocation of the capital and the introduction of the Sungkyunkwan as a seat of learning, the power of the nobility to hobble innovation remained strong. This is clear in the influence wielded by Minister Lim. It also made the politics of both Detective K and the Christians dangerous because, as a matter of conscience, they are attempting to improve the lot of the slaves out in the countryside. For the record, King Yeongjo outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice in 1758 and, despite it being formally reintroduced in 1785, there was significant persecution and martyrdom. For the local Confucians, one of the main problems was the Christian missionaries use of Hangul for translations of the Bible and religious texts. This helped spread the use of the script and undermined traditional scholarship based on the Chinese script — if you want to see the origins of the struggle over Hangul, watch Tree With Deep Roots. Interestingly, it turns out the now-deceased widow related to Minister Lim was a Christian who wanted to free the slaves on her husband’s estate. This would have given the Minister and his family a motive for murdering her.

 

Although the themes are essentially serious, the tone of the film remains light and, at times, close to farce. The only misstep is the use of CGI to create two giant dogs. This was unnecessary. The same effect could have been achieved with ordinary dogs given the fairly token nature of their roles. I was pleasantly surprised by one twist at the end. The rest is obvious from the outset and resolved by the usual deus ex machina appearance of the King at the critical moment. This is to be expected in a period film which wants to be broadly entertaining. Kim Myung-Min is excellent as Detective K showing a man who’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is, but blessed with a heart of gold on the inside. While Oh Dal-Su as Seo-Pil is more than he seems but equally accident-prone. The Sherlock/Watson chemistry between the leads is excellent, carrying the film. Summing up, Detective K: Secret of Virtuous Widow or Joseon Myungtamjung: Gakshituku Ggotui Biil can’t be beaten as unpretentious fun.

 

The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams

September 29, 2012 4 comments

In the distant past, Anon and Trad were able to take their time, honing phrases until they were elevated to idioms by popular acclamation. The idiom most relevant to this book depends on a pun. Yes, even in the 18th century, people liked to play with the meanings of words. For our purposes, the magic word is “dull”. In physical terms, this refers to a surface we would expect to be polished, but it has lost its shine, or it’s a reference to the fact a liquid is opaque. In metaphorical terms, it’s anything that’s boring or unexciting. As you will by now realise, the idiom is “dull as ditchwater” and it applies with full force to The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams (DAW, 2012). For those of you who care about such things, this is the first in an intended series featuring the lead character who goes by the name of Bobby Dollar, an Angel actually named Doloriel. So, yes, we’re back in the land of the Christians and I’m obliged to remind readers that I’m a committed atheist so you can judge the extent to which my review is biased.

Now we’ve cleared the decks, here we go with the set-up. Bobby is one of the advocates. For those of you not up on the processing of the recently deceased, all the souls have to go through a judicial process to decide where they end up. That means both Heaven and Hell assign lawyer/advocates to argue the toss over whether you should get the fields of gold with optional manna or delicate flame-crisping around the edges for eternity. Not unnaturally, these partisan advocates need the inside dope pretty quickly, so every soul has a permanent guardian angel and devil who oversee the life and then give a quick precis to the advocates on death. That’s billions of postmortal workers kept in gainful employment by the big governments of Heaven and Hell, two for each soul while alive and two for the trial process. Then there are all the civil servants who have to allocate cases to the advocates and generally administer the system. And that’s before you get to all the celestial and hellish beings needed to run Heaven and Hell as laid down in the original design specifications and make sure that all the expected amenities are up to snuff.

Tad Williams with head and top lip laid bare

Now we have all that clear, this is a Christian meets a PI theme as Bobby Dollar gets embroiled in an investigation to find out why he’s suddenly on a hit list. I pause at this point to smile indulgently. Since angels are already dead, you might wonder why anyone should want to “kill” him. Well, to walk around on Earth, all postmortals have to occupy human bodies and these can be killed, a termination which sends the souls straight to their relevant HQs without passing Go and collecting the two-hundred dollars. It’s also relevant to mention that this killing of the host body is potentially painful and, if a little torture was to be involved, it could make the return to HQ long and excruciating, no matter which direction the soul was heading. It turns out there’s been a conspiracy between high-up members of Heaven and Hell and our hero gets caught up in the backwash. So, to get himself off the hook and avoid the death of his human host, Bobby has to crack the case, walking the mean streets until he gets the answers and sees justice done.

I suppose all this could have been quite interesting — the idea of corruption in Heaven is by no means original since angels have been falling from grace over the centuries with some degree of regularity — but the execution of this book is terminally dull. It’s rare for me to struggle to finish a book but, to be honest, I almost didn’t bother to finish this. The only thing that persuaded me to plough through the turgid prose was mild curiosity to see why the particular high-up angel had been tempted into this particular deal and just how far he/she/it would go to cover it up. Oh dear. My brain was only working with the same enthusiasm as a 5 watt light bulb. This is the first in a series. Of course we’re not going to find out who the senior conspirators are until the final book. Perhaps it may even turn out it’s actually God who’s upset by the current black-and-white system and wants to change it. I mean just look at how unfair it is. You can lead a life of average quality and then, through the luck of the draw on which advocates you’re allocated and the judge you get to hear your case, you could end up in purgatory for eternity. It would be much better if there was a via media, a middle way in which ordinary people could be sent to a quiet place to retire. Although it might lack the amenities of Heaven, it would not punish disproportionately for mild sins — an altogether fairer outcome on dying.

So The Dirty Streets of Heaven has a vaguely interesting premise and the way in which our hero disposes of the nasty beast sent to kill him is quite pleasing. Otherwise, don’t bother. I suspect even the most dedicated of Christians will be bored to tears by it all — assuming they don’t find it blasphemous, of course.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see Diary of a Dragon.

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

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