Archive

Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Prince of Tennis or Tenisu no Ōjisama or テニスの王子様 (2006)

May 19, 2014 4 comments

Prince of Tennis

When growing up, I played what approximated to tennis. Even with a tall wooden fence built around two sides of the court, the effects of the prevailing winds were sufficiently strong and inconsistent that players needed supernatural abilities to predict where balls in flight would land. These were the days before climate change. The wind blew from the North Pole keeping us cool during the summer and under six feet of snow during the winters. This means a special place in my heart for the anime series Prince of Tennis or Tenisu no Ōjisama or テニスの王子様. I think I managed to sit through all the episodes up to Seishun Academy winning the National Middle School Tennis Championship. I showed such fortitude not because I’m a fairweather fan of tennis as a game, but because I find the fusion of fantasy and sport fascinating. The manga and subsequent anime adaptation were written in the days before Kei Nishikori managed to get into the top ten of the world ranking. Were people sitting down to write a tennis-based story today, there would be no need to show players developing and relying on supernatural abilities to win. Local players would simply be the best in the world.

 

Except, of course, Prince of Tennis is not alone in suggesting the top exponents in any activity do not rely on skill alone to excel. In one way or another, all winning players or fighters have inner physical and psychological strengths that enable them to outperform all opponents. That’s why we have the thread of wish-fulfillment running through this art form in which the young are shown defending the world, Japan, and their homes through the strength of their willpower as manifested through the machines they use or the sporting paraphernalia they play with. If passion was the only requirement, these young adults would win at everything whether it was a card-based game or battles against monsters.

Ryoma Echizen (Kanata Hongô)

Ryoma Echizen (Kanata Hongô)

 

So here’s me sitting down to watch the live action version of Prince of Tennis (2006). It’s one thing to watch fantasy when it’s line drawings filling the screen, but quite a different kettle of fish when it’s portrayed as “real”. The moment a camera shows an actual human being doing stuff, the credibility problem rears its ugly head and I start looking for some level of plausibility. As in the manga and anime, this version of Ryoma Echizen (Kanata Hongô) starts off with the inherent advantage of being ambidextrous. Because he can switch hands, he has a better coverage of the court without having to run as much. In the anime, his father is distinctly odd in a not very pleasant way. The film version has him almost human but nevertheless intensely lazy, being able to win without seeming to exert himself. This is a source of intense frustration for Ryoma and, to a degree, explains why he has such an arrogant approach to the social world as a deliberate loner. He’s far better than most other tennis players regardless of gender and age. He doesn’t have to like anyone else to beat them at the one game in which he wants to excel. Except he can’t beat his father. This gives him a major chip on his shoulder (big clue as to the theme of this series and film: he can never beat his father at his own game, he has to develop his own playing style and strategies, and play that game against his father).

 

The film version is remarkably faithful to the anime in the set-up with Ryoma feeling betrayed by being called back to Japan by his father, contemptuous of most other tennis players, but slowly coming to realise there can be advantages to being a team player. This is symbolised by Kunimitsu Tezuka (Yû Shirota), the school team captain, who beats Ryoma in a private game and later plays on in a key match even though he has a seriously damaged elbow. Sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of individuals or the team is one of the messages of this series.

Kunimitsu Tezuka (Yû Shirota)

Kunimitsu Tezuka (Yû Shirota)

 

To produce a two-hour film out of hours of manga and anime plot requires selectivity, so we watch Ryoma arrive at the school, beat a few of the top players without breaking sweat, and then playing his first match. The match the film director picks has Ryoma damage his eye. He then has to win “in ten minutes” or forfeit the match (don’t ask, it’s just a silly plot contrivance). This is also physically absurd. Monocular vision does not a good tennis player make, no matter which hand he uses to hold the racket. Anyway, he’s sufficiently impressive to be accepted as first reserve on the full team and this brings us to the “big match” where he has to play the bully. In the anime, there’s a big lead-up to this match which is won on the final shot where, after an interminable exchange of ground shots, each one more ferocious than the last, Ryoma produces a drop shot that leaves his opponent humiliated and defeated. This real world match is hilarious.

 

The arrogance of the bully is wonderful and, when Ryoma shows he’s not an opponent to be easily dismissed, the bully shows his supernatural talent. Now whereas others have trick shots which bend the ball in the air like an arctic gale suddenly appears or the ball disappears once it bounces (it’s the spin that takes the ball in an unexpected direction), this guy controls the solar system. Yes, when he gets angry, he produces a solar eclipse. Fortunately, the competition organisers have seen him do this before, so they are ready to switch on the massive lighting arrays to permit the players to continue the game. The bully now targets Ryoma’s leg, consistently hitting it with high-powered shots. Our hero’s head drops. His leg is bruised and hurts. More importantly, his understanding of astronomy has been seriously disturbed. Can he reset the celestial machine and rebuild his self-confidence? You betcha! He hates to lose so, with a contemptuous flick of his racket, he swats the moon away from the sun, the match organisers can turn off the lights before the money in the power budget runs out, and our hero outhits the young professional to win the match. Yeah!

 

The film’s attempt to be original with the subplot element of the dumb girl is rather wasted, and the token appearances of the other team members underwhelms. I suppose there could be sensible films in which magic or supernatural powers of one sort or another could be interwoven into a gaming format. Although I always thought the film version of quidditch rather confused and some of the wizard battles in other films have been distinctly silly, there’s probably room for a Tomorrow People type show in which individuals with telekinetic powers play each other at various ball sports. Until that day arrives, you should stick with the anime version of Prince of Tennis. Once you see human beings using magic to play tennis, it just gets too absurd to be watchable.

 

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end

The Moon Embraces the Sun

I’m going to start off this consideration of the rest of The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) with a question. Given the heavy-handed use of the sun/moon metaphor in the set-up, and the effect of the magic has been to completely empty the mind and personality of our heroine and leave only an intelligent girl behind,
what would it take to get the old personality and memories back into the body of our woman once she’s grown up? Those of you with experience in fantasy should have the answer instantly.

Kim Soo-Hyun

Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun)

So here we go with a rough and ready summary of the highlights. We have the spirit of the young girl as the weeping ghost in the palace (only the guilty can hear her) while Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon) brings Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In) back to town after eight years thinking she’s nothing more than a shaman’s spiritual daughter. On her first day, she has to meet both Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo) and Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-Hyun) who renames our moon Wol. They both look at her and speculate, but she’s adamant she’s never met either of them before so their interest is muted.

Han Ga-In

Heo Yeon-Woo/Wol (Han Ga-In)

Because of the need to inspire the King to take an interest in Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo), Heo Yeon-Woo is kidnapped and sent into the King’s bedroom at night as a human talisman to soak up all the evil vibes holding back his sexual interest (note the law of unintended consequences). In fact, the sun is positively bursting out of him the next morning, but he’s not now looking at the Queen. Meanwhile Heo Yeom (Song Jae-Hee) has married Princess Minhwa (Nam Bo-Ra) and this has protected the family. This sets everything up for the predictable political manoeuverings. Without an heir, the only way the situation can be resolved is by a coup. For a revolution to drum up enough support, it needs Prince Yangmyung to agree to take over power. The revolutionaries try to manipulate both the King and the Prince by variously kidnapping and torturing Wol until she gets her memory back.

And now the answer to the original question. Because all the guilty ones can hear the ghost crying, they lock Wol inside the palace at a key moment. Yes! It’s an eclipse when the sun and the moon come together and blot out the light. The gravitational shifts on Earth trigger a reunification of ghost spirit and body. Now she’s back to being Heo Yeon-Woo, it’s the slippery slope to the end. There’s a shaman battle as the ghost monster is sent out again to kill Heo Yeon-Woo, but Nok-Young triumphs, killing the second-string shaman recruited by the Queen. The plotters among the nobility come out into the open, and the Prince is in line for leadership.

Jung Il-Woo

Prince Yangmyung (Jung Il-Woo)

Which leads to the last, distinctly odd episode, most of it being an epilogue which confirms the passivity of the women. The Queen has spent eight years deeply frustrated because the King will not consummate the marriage. She may capture the sunlight in the eyes of the court, but this does not save her from depression and suicidal tendencies. The Queen Mother thinks she has power but, when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister has no hesitation in poisoning her as an irrelevance to his power grab. With the climactic battle minutes away, Heo Yeon-Woo is put into one of these pallaquin boxes so beloved of the aristocracy and is carried off to safety by two men. There’s a moment of unintended hilarity as these men later explain why it took so long to get to their destination. They thought they were being followed so had to take evasive action. Picture them carrying this heavy box, running away, jumping behind walls and lurking in the shadows under bridges until they were satisfied the coast was clear.

Kim Min-Seo

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim Min-Seo)

Anyway, once all the women have been sent away, the men can get on with the serious business of fighting. Except, of course, the king runs off to the side and lets everyone else have at it with swords. Only at the end does he pick up a bow and shoot a couple of arrows into the prime minister. With him slowed down, the Prince can deliver the coup de grace. So the death of all the plotters is righteous but, when a last attacker staggers to his feet with a spear, takes a few steps forward and pulls back his arm, everyone watches in fascination. No-one moves to stop him. Remember the king has a bow and arrow in his hand. There’s a small army with archers and warriors with swords in their hands. In slow motion the “assassin” throws the spear and the Prince does not dodge out of the way. He’s had enough of this two suns business and wants a rest. This leads to an interminable death scene as the heir apparent leaves this mortal coil, watched in deep embarrassment by all the grunts who fought alongside him, his brother and Woon (Song Jae-Rim) who may have had a thing for him (or were they just good friends).Then there’s the punishment of the Princess (after giving birth she’s demoted to slave but, when she’s served her time, everyone forgives her and she’s restored to the role of wife and mother) and Nok-Yung dies while performing appropriate rites to see all the deserving spirits get to Heaven. After that, the survivors all live happily ever after as you would expect in a romance.

Put all this together and you have a formulaic fantasy with predicable political skullduggery. It could have been better, but the female principals were given nothing to do except be relatively passive victims, and the relationship between the stepbrothers is left curiously unresolved. If the Prince had any sense he would know only too well what was happening, but he’s left twisting in the wind as if he was innately stupid. Even Princess Minhwa, who was manipulated as a child, is never allowed anything other than a cowardly refusal to deal with the mess she was involved in creating. This takes the edge off her rehabilitation at the end. Yet another serial which fails to live up to its initial promise.

For a summary of the opening episodes, see The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years.

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): the teen years

The Moon Embraces the Sun

The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012) may be touted as sageuk historical drama, but it’s actually almost pure fantasy romance, based on the novel “Haereul Poomeun Dal” by Jung Eun-Gwol. At first sight, it looks like another of these court dramas in which the king of the day has to deal with the factional infighting between the different family kin groups. Except little of what we see on the screen relates to any of Korea’s history. King Lee Hwon did not sit on the throne and none of the families who conspire to destabilize the country map onto known kin groups. More excitingly, this is a Korea in which shamanic magic actually works. This is not the simple foretelling of the future magic. It’s a much darker system which allows illness and death to be visited on enemies either by burying appropriate talismans in or under their houses, or by performing rites to invoke spirits which them go off like roiling black smoke snakes (someone obviously watched Lost) and invade bodies. Thematically, we’re into heavy-duty metaphor land.

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung)

The now quite common prefatory section to the first episode shows the key supernatural event which drives the rest of the serial. In this world, the sun divides. This is meant both literally and figuratively. For these purposes, assume that the sun represents the light and power attaching to individuals who may become king. During the serial, we actually see different people slightly backlit to create the effect of light generation. People nearby as these individuals walk past see highly attractive men and, more often than not, have to shade their faces and turn their eyes away. As in the real world, this radiated light can reflect off nearby bodies. So we see the moon because it stands out in the sky when the sun shines. This demonstrates the inherent sexism in the metaphor. Only men can be king (ignoring the right of the mother to act as regent during the son’s minority or incompetence). So the only women who can become visible in the sky are those who catch the light from the men. Were it not for the men, they would be invisible. So the plot device at play here is that, for our immediate purposes, the king of the day has two sons. The older was born to a royal concubine, the younger to the Queen. So according to the rules of succession, the younger son is the Crown Prince and the older is the heir apparent, i.e. he will take over should anything adverse happen to the Crown Prince. Not unnaturally, this gives conspirators hope because, if they get the heir apparent on their side and the Crown Prince then conveniently dies, they have their puppet on the throne. For this reason, the Crown Prince is not allowed in the palace, but is sent off to rusticate in the countryside where, hopefully, the conspirators will not find him. Unfortunately, both royal sons fall in love with the same woman. Hence the title of the serial leaves us to worry over the choice the moon will make and what effect that will have on the sun who loses out in this race for love.

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo)

All this future history is foreseen by Ari (Jang Yeong-Nam), a powerful young shaman who meets the heavily pregnant woman (Yang Mi-Kyeong) who will give birth to the moon. To create the maximum drama, Ari is later tortured but, before her execution, she passes on a message to her young friend, Nok-Young (Jeon Mi-Seon). She is to protect the girl who will become the moon by keeping her away from the sun. Not unnaturally, there are no names given which makes this task somewhat difficult to perform.

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho)

We now move forward thirteen years and find Heo Yeon-Woo (Kim You-Jung) attending a celebration in which her brother, Heo Yeom (Siwan) is to be acknowledged as scholar of the year (at the same ceremony, Woon (Lee Won-Geun) is to be confirmed the top martial arts exponent). A supernatural butterfly, one of many different mechanisms to make fate work out, leads Yeon Woo into a supposedly closed section of the palace where she meets the young Crown Prince Lee Hwon (Yeo Jin-Goo). Later at home, she’s visited by Prince Yangmyung (Lee Min-Ho). Yes, the older prince has known her for some time and is in love with her. The other key player is Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun). She’s the daughter of Yoon Dae-Hyung (Kim Eung-Soo), one of the senior ministers who’s plotting with the Queen Mother (Kim Young-Ae) to ensure his daughter marries the Crown Prince. Needless to say, these two moons are polar opposites. Heo Yeon-Woo is a socialist and not ashamed to treat the poor with respect, helping those in need and generally being a do-gooder, wise beyond her years. Yoon Bo-Kyung is born into old money and privilege. She is petty, vindictive and absolutely determined to do everything in her power to advance her family’s interests.

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Yoon Bo-Kyung (Kim So-Hyun)

Once we’ve established the love triangle as teens, we now move into the power plays. The king initially intends to allow the Queen Mother to decide who shall marry the Crown Prince. For once showing some life, the Crown Prince winds up the scholars to petition for full and fair elections. Democracy is a wonderful thing. All girls from the right families are to be eligible and the best shall be chosen. Not surprisingly, when the king accedes to the multiple petitions, Heo Yeon-Woo is the winner. This seriously dents the ambitions of the Yoon family so the Queen Mother leans on Nok-Young. By this time, she’s become shaman-in-chief and performs a rite to send the smoke monster to eat Heo Yeon-Woo. Now you’re thinking this is a bit hypocritical. Nok-Young knows this girl is the moon she’s supposed to protect, yet here she has the maiden at death’s door. But fear not. This is all part of a cunning ploy. She engineers a situation in which the girl is seen to die and is buried. She returns at night and digs her up. Unfortunately, she’s a little late and Heo Yeon-Woo goes through the trauma of waking up inside a coffin several feet down. This trauma (or perhaps the residual effects of the smoke monster) causes her to lose her memory. The shaman then takes her off into the countryside where the girl is raised as a shaman. So the teen years come to an end with everyone except the Yoon family devastated. The Crown Prince marries Yoon Bo-Kyung but, as revenge, he refuses to touch her. Without an heir, he thinks he’ll be safe.

To see how this is resolved: The Moon Embracing The Sun or Haereul Poomeun Dal or 해를 품은 달 (2012): to the end.

The Leopard by K V Johansen

April 27, 2014 2 comments

The Leopard-1

Another day and another epic fantasy in which the author is obviously determined to break the mould and write the ultimate bait and switch book. So let’s remind ourselves of the basic rules. The book must be titled by featuring the lead character. Since this will usually be a wizard or someone with a useful skill like a thief, the names will usually reflect this, e.g. Hoho the Great, Axelrod the Unwashed or Weasel the Lightfingered. This protagonist will usually have a sidekick and, after sinking a few mugs of the local brew, they set off on a quest that will involve fighting three-lettered creatures like orcs (except when there’s more than one of them, of course). If the fan boys are lucky, a barbarian princess with optional fighting skills may be added to the mix. And so on.

So here we go with The Leopard by K V Johansen (Pyr, 2014) (first in a new Marakand duology) which is set in the same world as Blackdog and builds on the general mythology of that world. We start off with Deyandara. Now she’s a person with an interestingly opaque lineage. All we can say for sure is that she’s a bastard and because everyone else to whom she may be related has been killed off, she’s in line to take over the throne. Except, she’s not that keen on the idea having spent her youth not very seriously training to be a bard. However, all this is rendered somewhat moot because, within minutes of her being acclaimed queen by the few nobles who happen to be around, the local goddess, Catairanach, appears to her in a vision and, before you can say, “Rumpelstiltskin is my name,” she’s whisked off into the countryside on a minor quest. Sadly this goddess is strictly temperance, so our heroine is not allowed any of the local brew. She’s also denied the right for her name to title the book. This should give you a clue as to her importance.

K V Johansen

After a while, she finds Ahjvar. He’s an assassin with the nickname, The Leopard. “Ah ha!” you’re saying. “This is the guy who gives his name to the book (the spots help him hide in the shrubbery). Now we can get on with the story.” Better still, he’s got a sidekick called Ghu. Not surprisingly, because this is a fantasy with deities, demons and a practical system of magic in operation, Ahjvar has been cursed. The message from Catairanach is that he can be free of this inconvenience if he goes off on a quest to kill the mad prophet known as the Voice of Marakand. Actually it’s not much of a quest because the Voice is in the city of Marakand so it’s not that difficult to find her. He does get to drink, though, which is always a good sign. So after traipsing across the landscape doing their best to leave Deyandara behind, our team arrives in the city. Shortly thereafter, the assassin kills the current Voice, is captured, is converted into a soldier loyal to the reincarnated Voice and sent out of the city. Yes, that’s right. The titular assassin is not the long-running protagonist (he’s pushed out of the way so he can come back in book 2 and kick butt). Deyandara is also sent off to find whatever’s left of her kingdom. This leaves us to meet and greet a couple of characters from the first book who turn up in the city. They link up with a magician who’s been there for a while. They briefly link up with Ghu who hasn’t quite decided whether he should go off and try to rescue Ahjvar. And then there’s a lot of fighting with undead magicians being used to intimidate Marakand and its citizens. Obviously, they are quite difficult to kill, what with them being already dead. None of this zombie rubbish for them. They are pretty invincible unless they can be reminded they are already dead. That tends to break the spell animating them.

So the author is slightly playing a game with the readers, introducing new characters and then moving them into position for book 2, while characters we know something about reappear to carry us through to the evenly balanced ending where both sides need to regroup before launching off into book 2. I’m not prepared to say a great deal about the quality of the plot because it’s obviously one book divided into two parts for publication purposes. It could turn out very good. . . All I can say is that the prose is quite dense and full of reasonably interesting detail. Since we only have to wait until December to see how it all plays out, this may be worth picking up if you like epic fantasy.

For a review of the other book set in this world, see Blackdog.

The cover art from Raymond Swanland is rather pleasing.

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

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire

April 11, 2014 11 comments

Seanan McGuire Chimes at Midnight

Well, here we continue on this minor diversion from the norm. For all it’s faults, I enjoyed the Newsflesh trilogy Mira Grant and thought it would be interesting to look at the author writing under her own name. Now I appreciate this is taking a risk on two counts. The first is the reason why authors choose to write under a pseudonym. They already have a good brand name for a particular type of fiction. The new work will not fit into their existing fan base’s expectations. So it must be hidden (until someone leaks the secret identity). The second is that I’m coming into an existing series which is never a good thing.

Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire (DAW, 2013) is the seventh in the October Daye urban fantasy series. This time round, we’re into the forbidden fruit of the Goblin variety, a drug that’s addictive and ultimately deadly to changelings, but merely a pleasant high for full-blooded fae. The Queen of the Mists is the pusher. Yes, it comes over as a bit of a shocker to discover a leader can stoop so low but, as the gang boss says, she needs the money and the fact a few of the changelings die is nothing to worry about. Obviously, this lack of emotion is not terribly startling. The fae are notorious for their amorality. Only their half-breed children and a few on the margins have anything approaching a conscience. It seems October, Toby to her friends, is one of these changelings, a child of a fae and a human. When she innocently complains to the Queen that someone is pushing this deadly drug, she’s given three days to get out of Dodge (well, San Francisco actually). This provokes the natural plot response. When the Luidaeg tips her off that the Queen’s right to the throne was less than solid, the hunt is on to find the rightful heir. What’s a little treason between old enemies.

Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire

Pausing for a moment, this is a hack plot idea. The Queen is an all-round evil person in charge of this small kingdom and, just when she really begins to go beyond the pale, our hero experiences the ultimate coincidence effect. The first person she talks to after being banished just happens to know the Queen is an unlawful usurper of the throne. Wow, is that a convenient piece of information, or what? And within a few more pages, our hero has tracked down the real heiress who’s been hidden away for years without anyone being able to find her. Wow, it that ever evidence the girl guide’s badge for tracking really does prove ability to find stuff and people? To say this is contrived and contorted would be an understatement.

So with Quentin, a teenage Daoine Sidhe courtier from Shadowed Hills, proving to have more maturity than previously suspected, and other minions in tow, it’s moderately action-packed as we build on the coincidences to get to the solution at the end. Because this is urban fantasy, there’s considerable focus on our hero’s relationship with Tybalt, King of Cats. Naturally, they go through the emotional wringer and emerge all the stronger for it. Does this mean the book is a waste of time? In part, yes. But despite the morass of detail about fairy lore and genealogy, there’s interest in this as an exploration of the nature of identity. As a changeling, Toby is powerless as a human and potentially powerful as a fae. The problem, as always in these situations, is to get the balance right between the two parts to give herself enough access to the magic without sacrificing her humanity.

The trigger for a more serious thread in the book is the decision of the Queen to expose our hero to the goblin fruit. As the crack cocaine of drugs, the effect on a changeling is to induce a shift to human where the effect is more pleasurable. Unfortunately, this loses the immortality feature that comes with the fairy genes: hence the high death rate. So our hero loses most of her powers and almost reverts to human. Not surprisingly, this undermines her confidence in herself as a partner to Tybalt. She’s not sure he’ll still love her. It also creates problems on how to stay alive and how to fight the evil Queen and her minions as a powerless human. I thought the introduction of a highly addictive drug was a brave ploy. It could have provided a real dynamic to the narrative as she goes cold turkey. Unfortunately, the whole situation is managed and then resolved just a little too easily. Yes, there has to be a big fight, but the physical and psychological stress of having to deal with the addiction is somewhat glossed over. The gritty reality of dealing with addiction would not really fit into an urban fantasy format. That said, this is not a completely awful book about fairies and the other species that interact to form the fae as a group of kingdoms or fiefdoms. The romance does deal with the uncertainties of love in a difficult situation. So, in my usual dismissive and patronising male voice, I can say Chimes at Midnight is quite good for an urban fantasy.

For reviews of the books written as Mira Grant, see:
Blackout
Deadline
Feed
Parasite
and as written by Seanan McGuire:
Discount Armageddon
Half-off Ragnarok.

Academic Exercises by K J Parker

April 4, 2014 4 comments

Academic Exercises by K J Parker

Academic Exercises by K J Parker (Subterranean Press, 2014) is an outstanding collection of short stories, novellas and novelettes. Most of the stories were published online so this represents the first hard copy opportunity to read them. It’s an interesting fact that Subterranean and Eclipse Online have been so active in promoting this writer’s work at shorter length. Better known as a novelist, this collection demonstrates that a true storyteller succeeds no matter what the length of the story. Each of the works of fiction is a masterclass of the art of narrative. What makes these stories even more interesting is that, in a way, the author more obviously crosses the line into fantasy with the supernatural assumed to be real. This departs somewhat from the novels which may be packaged as fantasy, but are actually historical fiction, i.e. mediaeval thrillers with no real systems of magic or supernatural beings on display. The three non-fiction pieces also included are delightfully illuminating insights into history.

 

“A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” (2012 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) is a wonderful story in which the relationship between a teacher and a brilliant student is charted from the early days in which the student despises the teacher’s poverty of imagination, through a period when the teacher’s reputation rises, until there’s a final moment of revenge that only a true master of the art could really appreciate. In civilised societies, things don’t get much more vicious than this. “A Rich, Full Week” sees a peripatetic brother going out on his rounds to keep the countryside free from assault from magical or generally supernatural beings. We discover he’s perhaps not the best of practitioners — they tend to stay in the city and do research — but there’s a dogged determination to avoid death (or other forms of extinction) that serves him well. “Amor Vincit Omnia” reminds us that some skills are as natural as breathing and we all do that, don’t we? So the question would be how best to persuade a breather to stop, just for a moment, so that an adjustment could be made. I suppose an appeal could be made. Perhaps something along the lines of, “Come to Mamma!”

 

“Let Maps to Others” (2013 World Fantasy Award-Winner for Best Novella) gives us an insight into the academic realm where scholarship is its own reward. Of course, if you did happen to come up with information about where your local Eldorado was located, there would be people willing to pay a lot for that. Unfortunately, there are no maps. . . But perhaps there might be a coded map reference showing the location. No, that’s far too unlikely, particularly if some of the documents were forgeries. Ah, now that really would add extra spice to the expedition sent out to the map coordinates. Or perhaps the crew should suck lemons. To say this story is completely entrancing is an understatement. “A Room with a View” allows us to continue the study of how magic may be performed. It all depends on being able to access mental constructs called rooms. The theory says you never find anything inside a room you enter for the first time, but you can take something into the room with you that may remain behind. It’s always useful to remember your theory should a practical need arise. “Illuminated” reminds us that the book is the medium through which one generation passes on useful information to the next. To protect the pages from contamination, it may be advisable to wear gloves. Some precautions before and during the reading itself may also be desirable. Otherwise the result may be more illuminating than you expect.

 

Purple & Black” was published separately and is already reviewed on this site at length. “The Sun and I” reflects on the old truism that, if God had not existed, we would have had to invent him. Here a group of young men are uncertain how best to avoid looming poverty. They are “inspired” to begin promoting a new religion, and then discover something unusual is happening. The way in which the story balances cynicism and a sense of wonder is masterful. “One Little Room an Everywhere” also deals with the unexpected arrival of a talent. A young man who had little talent as a magician discovers he may have the ability to create works of art. The uncertainties lie in the exact nature of the process and the real price to be paid. “Blue & Gold” is also reviewed at length on this site.

 

“On Sieges” (non-fiction) is a fascinating piece picking out the highlights of military strategy through the ages as the balance of power shifts between offensive and defensive capabilities. What makes this so interesting is not the recital of facts, many of which I already knew, but the reminder of just how long some of these ideas and tactics have been around. So even in the last century, trench warfare was briefly necessitated by the arrival of the machine gun but once tanks were perfected, the army could drive around the fortified line. Stalingrad shows us that aerial bombardment creates endless places for the defenders to dig in for protection, while the need to occupy land invaded will always require boots on the ground. “Cutting Edge Technology” takes us into the world of the sword and how to fight with them. Although it’s slightly off-point, this is worth reading to discover the truth about the Springfield Rifle used in the First World War. It’s a delicious irony. “Rich Men’s Skins” continues the exploration of hardware by looking at the history of armour. Although I knew a little of the fighting styles of the Greeks and Romans, this filled in more gaps in my knowledge than the other two. The three pieces taken together form an immediately accessible fund of knowledge.

 

Put all this together and you have one of the best collections of 2014. It should be shortlisted for every major award. Academic Exercises is a must read!

 

For other reviews of books by K J Parker, see:
Blue and Gold
Purple and Black
Sharps.

 

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

 

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

March 30, 2014 5 comments

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014) produces mixed emotions. This is the second of a projected ten volumes in a fantasy epic called The Stormlight Archive. There’s just one problem. At slightly under eleven-hundred pages in length, the author has already delivered enough material for five ordinary fantasy books and yet this is only book two. To call this excessive or sprawling would not be an exaggeration. We meet up with characters from the first volume as expected. They are spread around the environment and, in the first instance, not really interacting. Again, I suppose this is to be expected. If everyone got together for a meeting over beer and sandwiches, the series might be over before it has a chance to get epic. So everything that happens in this book is just edging us further forward in our understanding of the world and how the individuals from the different races relate to each other. With eight more books to go, we’re looking at a vista of fantasy unrolling across thousands of pages. It will take years to write and, from a reader’s point of view, endless patience. Indeed, without wishing to be unduly pessimistic about my life expectancy, I will probably die before the series is finished.

At this level, the world building is spectacular in its detail and internal consistency. However you choose to place a value on the craft of writing, Sanderson continues to deliver a world of incredible complexity, both in the flora and fauna, and in the various races that inhabit it. Taking the physical environment which is constantly at risk from the storms, the idea of plants that can withdraw into the ground or surrounding rocks is but one of hundreds of similarly pleasing examples of Darwinism at work. It would be a natural adaptation for the survival of all the different species. Animals also come with shells that can protect them from the wind. There must also be gills because some areas experience flash floods of considerable force and an amphibious adaptation would help them survive. I could go on, but not only are the words themselves ingenious in delivering a picture in the mind’s eye, the publisher has also commissioned internal illustrations from Dan Dos Santos, Ben McSweeney and Isaac Stewart to illustrate the qualities of the different plants, animals, sword fighting stances, and so on. The whole book package is a work of some beauty including the jacket artwork by Michael Whelan which I have set out above so you can appreciate its quality. I only wish it was less heavy to hold.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

The political situation also progresses with the human kingdom still riven by warring family disputes. Since the assassination of the old king, the replacement has been struggling. It’s not that he doesn’t have some of the right instincts. Rather that he’s petulant and easily led by the wrong people. This forces his son to assume a de facto position of power. His is a heavy burden. Not only does he have to compensate for his father the king, but also try to bring the families together again. Unfortunately, the politics is clouded by an anticipated change in the world. The history shows there have been previous civilisations which have fallen. So far, enough people have survived to rebuild. But this time it may be different. All of which brings us to the central fantasy which powers the narrative. There’s a form of magic available to some people. Essentially, this works when “spirits” called spren from an adjacent dimension bleed through and begin interacting with the humans that can see them. Over time, this produces a bonding and delivers significant powers to the individuals. They become the Radiants. However, this power depends on the continuing relationship between the Radiant and the spren. If the human does not keep his oath, the sprem will die and the radiance will be lost.

This book is largely taken up with two characters as their relationships with their spren begins to deepen. Both characters are broken. They have suffered extreme emotional pain. One finds it difficult not to give into anger, bitterness and nihilism. His is the more difficult journey because he has blinded himself to his potential and does not understand what form his oath must take and how it can be kept when difficult choices have to be made. The other has considerable insight into the practicality of some aspects of the magic, but doesn’t believe strongly enough in her ability to develop full powers. She’s content to approach the matter with the detached interest of an academic. Except, of course, she finds herself stripped of the opportunity to hide, becoming embroiled in an emerging subplot which introduces a group who first seem little more than a band of assassins, but are later shown to be something more important. So the enduring theme of the book is the process of personal transformation. Just as the other races, plants and wildlife have had to adapt, the rare humans with the potential for growth must also adapt to the opportunity to bond with their spren. Needless to say, a series of this length has a cast of hundreds and, to a greater or lesser extent, they are all given their few pages in the sun. So we meet with everyone from the lowest slaves to the king and high lords. All have their own problems to solve and a wish list for improvements in their quality of life. It proves to be a fascinating read and, because it’s an epic fantasy, it builds to a major climax in which there are some issues resolved, and other plot threads left dangling for future books.

I suppose you could read this as a standalone. It will take you longer to work out who everyone is and what their relationships are, but the narrative drive will keep you going. A lot of interesting things happen. The better route is to read The Way of Kings first. That will give you essential background, enable you to pick up the story more quickly, and enrich the reading experience as The Words of Radiance takes you deeper into this strange world.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Broken Homes 1

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch (Daw, 2014) is the fourth outing for Peter Grant and a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for some time. The old saying is that “things” tend to come in sets of three and, more often than not, the third time is the best. Which means, of course, that the first in the new set of three is not necessarily going to be better. We’re following on from the events in Whispers Underground with Lesley May struggling to come to terms with her facial disfigurement as more information about the Faceless Man’s activity surface. The first sign comes through a body dump. Jaget Kumar then quietly passes on a very suspicious suicide on the London Underground. This leads to an interest in the now deceased Erik Stromberg, a German architect who may have built something interesting near the Elephant and Castle. As constructed, the book provides a very elegant trail of breadcrumbs which leads up to a final confrontation and the big surprise to lead into the next in the series. So far so good.

It would also be fair to say that the general standard of gentle humour is maintained with some pleasing repartee between Grant and May. But the overall effect is less satisfying this time round. Perhaps I just had to wait too long before reading this. Perhaps I’m beginning to find the ideas just a little repetitive. It’s hard to put my finger precisely on the spot so I’ll scratch around and see what comes out.

Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch

The first three books have built themselves around the magic woven into the bricks and mortar of London. Making the whole scene work are the fey who live in and around the rivers of the metropolitan area. Given their power, a treaty has been put in place which requires the local police force to maintain a buffer unit that can respond to wrongdoing on both sides of the magical divide. This is the Folly, currently run by the appropriately named Detective Inspector Nightingale who actually gets more prominence in this book. Think of him as the White Wizard of London with Peter Grant and Lesley May as his apprentices. This leads to two major narrative strands. The young Grant and the now injured May must learn their trade as wizards. This is not a rerun of the Hogwarts experience because the lives of this pair are rooted in the reality of London and they are often in real danger. The second element is the relationship between different figures among the fey and the humans responsible for maintaining a workable interface with the magically challenged police. Not unnaturally, the average coppers on the beat tend to be less than enthusiastic if something wicked their way comes. While not exactly considering Nightingale to be one of the wicked, they prefer conventional cases. This is one of the less well explained features of this version of London. A large number of the police and their support staff are aware of the magical infrastructure of their city, but there’s little or no sign of general public awareness. In our world, it would be impossible to keep this from the news media.

The problem for the author is one of thematic repetition. So Aaronovitch has tackled the problem head on with the increasingly important battle for power between the Folly and the cohorts of the Faceless Man, this time reinforced by the redoubtable Varona Sidorovna. This adopts the more formal tradition of protagonist and antagonist in adventure and thriller novels, and gives more scope for crimes to be committed which would require the Folly’s intervention. In this book, there’s a remarkably spectacular crime which would certainly interest the news media to the exclusion of most other stories. However, this shift of emphasis brings its own challenge. The success of the first two books lay clearly in exploring the relationship with the fey. Now we’re looking at a criminal wizard, Aaronovitch must decide what balance to strike. In this instance, there’s a major set-piece as the magical beings come on-shore for their annual bash. Although some of what happens may be setting plot lines in place for the next novel, there’s little obvious contribution to the forward progress of this book’s plot. Indeed, you feel some of the characters are just being given walk-on moments to remind us they are still around.

So there’s some interesting discussion of urban planning and the politics of redevelopment. There are also one or two illuminating developments from Nightingale who’s beginning to emerge as a more rounded figure. But the feel is less coherent and I have the sense newcomers to the series might find this book less easy to follow. This leaves me recommending the first three books in the series and suggesting new readers might read Midnight Riot aka Rivers of London, the first book, before setting off on this. I found Broken Homes slightly disappointing.

For my review of two other books in the series, see:
Midnight Riot or Rivers of London and
Whispers Underground.

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

March 13, 2014 11 comments

Blood-and-Iron-The-Book-of-the-Black-Earth--476514-1188293feb27c417d22e

This book forces us back to basics. As a social phenomenon, racism leads one race to treat one or more other races differently. Under normal circumstances, this difference is based on some easily identified feature such as skin colour. Whatever the feature, it’s perceived as making one race superior to the other(s). This perception of superiority is then used as a justification for the differential treatment. In practical terms, racism is also a measure of relative physical power because if the race(s) considered inferior resent(s) the difference in treatment, the individual victims may object. Self-evidently, if the race considering itself superior is able to enforce its will through the use of violence, we get into a self-reinforcing cycle which produces a stereotype of superiority and consolidates the prejudice and associated discrimination. The most obvious way in which this dominance/subservience is entrenched into local cultures is through the practice of slavery where the members of the inferior races are treated as property to be owned and, where relevant, inherited as a part of the land.

 

Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk (Pyr, 2014) The Book of the Black Earth 1 is set on the same fantasy world as his previous series featuring Caim. This time, most of the relevant action takes place in a country called Akeshia which is a version of 1001 Arabian Nights overlapping Egypt to give us sword and sorcery with factional political infighting. The magic system depends on zoana which allows the manipulation of the traditional elements: earth, wind, fire and water, plus the void. All children in this part of the world are tested and those with the ability to manipulate one or more of the elements, get higher status and potential access to political power. Those with the highest abilities get to be rulers, whether in the overt political domain or in the religious cults which train their sorcerers from young to be blindly obedient to the “faith”. Of course everyone is really interested in secular power but, for now, there’s an uneasy balance between the secular rulers and the priests of the Sun Cult which has emerged the victor in the “godwars”.

Jon Sprunk

Jon Sprunk

 

We start off in a period of this world’s history not entirely dissimilar to our own with the “European” races setting off on another “Crusade” to suppress the inferior races. Horace Delarosa, our “hero”, joins one of the ships as a carpenter but, in a sorcerous storm, the ship is lost and he washes up on the shore of Akeshia. So here comes a man not speaking the language and having no idea of local cultural norms of behaviour. Not surprisingly, he’s immediately arrested and, although shown some kindness by local villagers, he’s soon going inland on a forced march. However, as an inherently “better” human being, he defends the weak and befriends the downtrodden. “Europeans” have nobility of spirit written into their DNA. They are also gentle and humble and awfully nice, even when provoked by the soldiers guarding the slaves. We then get into the substance of the book through the arrival of another sorcerous storm. Two adepts go out in front of the caravan to defend themselves and their property (the slaves) but their skills are not up to the task. At this point, our hero discovers he can just switch off the storm. Yes, our superior European can instinctively do what no other local can do even after a lifetime of training.

 

And here comes the big plus to this discovery. No-one who can use the zoana can be treated as a slave. So through this inherent ability, he goes from the bottom of the heap to a launching pad which could enable him to be king one day. Yes, you can’t keep a good “European” down. No matter where he ends up, he’s always superior and will rise to the top. A few pages later, he’s being introduced to Queen Byleth of Erugash, one of the ten city-states controlling Akeshia and, wowser, is she a looker! Yes, she takes one look at our hero and she wants his genes in her children. There’s just one problem. Her political state is parlous. She’s about to be married off to a puppet of the Sun Cult so unless our hero can pull a rabbit out of his hat (that’s a euphemism but, in this instance, not one referring to sexual activity), she’s going to lose her role as de jure leader and become a mere baby producer for the puppet king.

 

Into the mix, comes Alyra who’s a spy working undercover as a slave in the Queen’s household and Jirom, an ex-soldier and gladiator whom our hero met as a fellow slave. Naturally, Alyra is also taken with our hero and Jirom is gay which makes their relationship confusing and explains why, despite his best efforts, Jirom is kept away from our hero lest he be tempted to the dark side (or something). So with just a few words of encouragement, our hero is soon demonstrating powers not seen in more than two-hundred years. When Europeans are good at something, they are really, really good at it! It was never a fair contest really and, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, he’s the number 1 warrior to the Queen and all-round nice guy. So he fights a few good fights and, despite not knowing how he’s doing what he’s doing with this magic thing, he’s doing it so well, he’s winning all his fights. Better still, when the locals use their powers, they develop stigmata and bleed from their wounds, but our hero ends up as good looking as when he started (once he’s combed his hair, of course).

 

So there you have it. Our hero saves the Queen (several times), incinerates lots of enemies, dispatches various demons and other creatures from “beyond”, and generally shows these primitive savages how a gentleman from “Europe” behaves. This makes all the women swoon and most of the ruling elite hate his guts — jealousy is a terrible curse even when magic is real — yes, my curse is bigger than your curse! The political machinations are somewhat simplistic and the increasingly divergent narratives arcs featuring Jirom are not as well integrated as they might have been making the pacing uneven and, at times, distinctly leaden. Summing up, at almost every level, Blood and Iron is overtly racist and sexist — at some points by my standards, offensively so. This may not be a problem for some readers. If all you want to see is people fighting using various levels of magical skill, this is a “classic” fantasy novel and you’ll probably enjoy this. Anyone else should steer well clear.

 

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

 

The Barrow by Mark Smylie

The_Barrow_press_final_s

The wizard, the warrior (she cross-dresses to get the part), the thief and the Rogue (sorry no barbarian this time round) go into an inn. “Drinks all round!” calls out the Rogue and so the game begins. Yes we’re in the land of RPGs, specifically Quests and, to prove the point, The Barrow by Mark Smylie (Pyr, 2014) (see the Artesia graphic novels) starts us off in full tomb-robbing mode. When the label “sword & sorcery” was being coined back in the 1960s, the general practice was to have the heroes gather, set off quietly, and build to a big set-piece at the end when mayhem, usually both violent and magical, was allowed full rein. This book rather breaks with convention by showing a team in action as they approach an underground temple. Within just a few pages, they have boldly gone below and are soon fighting for their lives as the worshippers don’t take too kindly to their temple being violated (again). While the acolytes go hand-to-hand with the intruders, the priestess gets into the business of an invocation and, as the light fades, something this way comes and it’s not going to stop with just pricking thumbs. Fortunately, the main protagonist, Stjepan, aka Black-Heart, has found what he was looking for and, together with Erim (she’s undetectably doing the man’s job of hacking away at all-comers) and Harvald, they escape with The Map! Yes, the thieves were preparing to carry away treasure, but the enigmatic Stjepan, cartographer and other things to Kings, was only interested in finding the route to the ultimate treasure. Not surprisingly, he’s on the track of the legendary sword Gladringer which was reputedly buried along with a wizard called Azharad — not to be confused with Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab from Lovecraftian Mythos.

Mark Smylie

Mark Smylie

 

Having now demonstrated he can write exciting set-pieces in underground locations, our attention switches to the city and something rather sad happens. By way of introduction, I should confirm the story being told is actually quite interesting. The politics of this society and the subsequent travel across the landscape of this fantasy world are done well. Indeed, the problem comes from the attention to detail in the world-building. This is a six-hundred page book — intermediate in size since one or two books are now weighing in at more than one-thousand pages. Obviously, a lot happens in a book this long, but there’s also a vast amount of infodumping going on to introduce everyone, explain where they are, the history of the places, the religious significance of different practices, and so on. If you didn’t keep having to slow down to read it all, this would no doubt be considered an excellent adventure book. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The opening section suggests it wanted to be rip-roaring, non-stop action, but once we get back above ground, it’s like the author wanted to show all us Doubting Thomases just how much effort he had invested in making up all this stuff. Shame really. If someone on the editorial staff had taken an axe to the book as submitted, there was a wonderful 400 page epic fantasy waiting to be told in crisp, elegant prose.

 

Instead, it gets rather boring. You can tell the author was also finding it heavy going because, from time to time, he tries to divert attention from the plodding nature of the prose by introducing some sex scenes. In a way, this book reminded me of the Gor novels by John Norman. When our professor got tired of expounding on the merits of the social Darwinism underpinning his fictional societies and their cultures, he would allow the dominant men to show their women a good time (remember Lange also wrote a more academic book — only joking — arguing that sexual fantasies, often of a BDSM variety, would help couples improve their sex lives). Well some of the sex in this book is slightly more graphic than even our good professor would have fantasised about on paper (or perhaps elsewhere for that matter).

 

Anyway, once back in town, Harvald assigns himself the task of decursing The Map, but things don’t go quite as planned and the physical document is destroyed. Depending on your point of view, this is not the end of matters. The Map does not go quietly up in smoke, but elects to reappear in another location — tickets to view are soon on private sale. With the security situation deteriorating, Stjepan and Erin join with Gilgwyr the brothel impresario and Leigh, the unreliable wizard, to find the Barrow where the sword is believed buried. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the team enter said barrow and discover there are difficulties to overcome — not a total surprise.

 

So The Barrow suffers from many of the problems common to first novels which set off down fairly well-travelled plot roads. Mark Smylie has attempted to compensate for the underlying lack of originality by adding in detail. This leaves me blaming the publisher whose editorial staff should have taken control of the book, cut out all the dead wood, and distilled the remainder of the plot down to a manageable length.

 

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

 

%d bloggers like this: