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The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments

The_Drawing_of_the_Dark_by_Tim_Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

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

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

April 25, 2014 1 comment

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor

Here we find ourselves pitched into an increasingly confident area of historical mystery. The conventional mystery or thriller writer picks a time of relative calm as the setting. This leaves the history as contextual background information, with the foreground free for the hero to investigate the wrongdoing. But some authors prefer times of great conflict as the setting, and the period just before, during, and after World War II is proving a fruitful area for authors to explore. J. Robert Janes has a long-running series set in Occupied France featuring Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo and Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté. The interest, of course, lies in the question of whether St-Cyr is a collaborator and therefore worthy of contempt, or does he earn some latitude because he pursues wrongdoers regardless of nationality or status? Philip Kerr also has a long-running series featuring Bernie Gunther, a homicide detective. The first book starts in 1936 at the time of the Olympics, then moves forward to 1938 with him given the temporary rank of Kriminalkommissar in Heydrich’s state Security Service, and later moves into the war years and the period immediate afterwards. Luke McCallin has his second book featuring Captain Gregor Reinhardt coming out later this year and J Sydney Bounds has one book set in post-war Nuremberg, see Ruin Value.

A Dark Song of Blood by Ben Pastor (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is the third book in the series featuring Martin von Bora, an officer in the Wehrmacht who continues to work with Italian police inspector Sandro Guildi (in the first book, Bora is teamed with Father John Malecki, a Polish-American priest working directly for the Vatican). The consistent themes through the three books are dark and complex. First in Poland and then the two remaining books in Italy, we’re required to think about how different groups form and maintain alliances. Standing slightly outside the more conventional political power structure, there’s the overarching relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Third Reich. As part of the plan to deChristianise Germany, catholics had been specifically targeted which led to the increasing marginalisation of catholics during the 1930s. However, the relationship with the Papal See was complicated when Italy formally joined the Axis. As Germany began its expansion across national borders, it immediately found itself having to hold areas still deeply religious. As if invasion was not hard enough for the occupied people to stomach, it would further antagonise locals if priests were arrested and the people were prevented from worship.

Ben Pastor

Ben Pastor

Much of this book is taken up with Germany’s difficulty in reconciling its presence in Italy with the entrenched power of the Pope and his cardinals. Bora is a useful honest broker because he’s a trusted catholic whose university study was guided by a man now serving as a cardinal. This book is set in 1944 as the Allies are pressing their advance through Italy towards Rome. So the alliance with the Italian Fascists is failing as patriotic fervour dims in line with military failures. The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the SS is also strained as the practice of retaliating for German deaths by executing multiples of local citizens is encouraging the emergence of increasingly confident resistance fighters. Final efforts to deport Jews and others deemed socially undesirable are also producing real political disagreements between the different groups. It would be a serious understatement to call this a time of danger and uncertainty. And Ben Pastor does not make the mistake of leaving these events in the background. In many senses, this is a work of military fiction or a political thriller which just happens to feature an army officer who gets sucked into investigating politically sensitive deaths.

The initial hook for the investigators is the death of Magda Reiner who worked in the German Embassy as a secretary. She was found dead on the pavement outside her apartment block. It could have been suicide, but the Roman Chief of Police prefers that a political opponent be guilty of her murder. Much later there’s what may be a murder-suicide with a society lady well-known for her charitable works found dead in bed with an elderly cardinal. Obviously all three deaths are sensitive albeit for different reasons. As a serving officer, Bora is already deeply committed to defending what Germany holds in Italy. The investigations must therefore be fitted around his military duties. He’s also conscious of the fact that Germany will lose this fight and be forced out of Rome. If Guildi is positively involved in this investigation, he may be damned when the Allies take over and the locals can take their revenge against known collaborators. Independently, Guildi finds himself walking a narrow line through the infighting between the Italian factions as the Communists begin to take a more active role. In the end he will be faced with the difficult decision of whether to risk staying in Rome as the Allies arrive, or going north with the partisans.

A Dark Song of Blood is a powerful novel about lives under pressure. With every individual wondering whether he or she will be able to survive, it falls to the few with a conscience and a sense of honour to defy the prevailing power structures and do what they believe to be right. Bora has been emotionally scared and physically damaged. He’s no longer fit for active duty on the front line and so finds himself fighting a different type of war both with himself and many of those around him. As the novel progresses, he proves to be a proactive survivor, i.e. once he realises he’s falling into the pit, he decides to fall with as much force as possible and hope to produce at least one small change for the better before he dies. The outcome for Rome as a city is a matter for history. The different outcomes for Bora and Guildi are completely fascinating, making this a genuinely impressive novel.

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

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

January 15, 2014 2 comments

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic/Arthur & Levine, 2014) is the first in a planned trilogy which sees me inadvertently straying into young adult territory again. Sadly, when I pick out books to read by title, I have no clear idea what to expect from a previously unread author. It’s part of the fun of being a reviewer in constantly trying something new in each new batch of books. Unfortunately, I find myself back in the black-and-white world of the YA market. It actually doesn’t start badly, briefly recreating some of the vibe from the original Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Yes, we’re in High School territory where the seventeen-year-old hero is something of a sporting jock whose coach also teaches the Civics (i.e. History and Moral Philosophy) class on what it means to be an American citizen. Unfortunately, instead of then going on to military training and into battle with the Bugs, we then grind into the preliminary moves for a Civil War scenario. Today Idaho, tomorrow the whole of America.

OK so here we go with a near-future political thriller. It’s not really SFnal albeit there are slightly more advanced AI interfaces for mobile technology and communication systems. For most practical purposes, we’re to confront this brave new world as equivalent to our own in terms of culture and the practicalities of day-to-day living. Our young hero is Daniel Christopher Wright. Because his father had been on active service, he joins the Idaho National Guard as soon as he’s old enough. Thus, when the book starts, he already knows how to shoot, but his knowledge of the US Constitution is almost zero. The trigger for events is a federal law requiring all US citizens to carry an ID-card. It’s a one-stop form of identification, whether talking about personal issues like access to medical records if the card carrier is injured and needs emergency treatment, or access to all state and federal programs. Ignoring the utility of such cards, this plan is deeply controversial because all the cards carry a GPS transmitter enabling those with authorisation to track where everyone goes. Many citizens and some US states see the card as an invasion of individual privacy, and they oppose the implementation of the law. President Rodriguez, however, is not in the mood to hear these protests.

This brings us back to Idaho and Governor Montaine who enjoys strong support both from the two houses of the state legislature, and among the voters. As an opponent of Big Government, the state exercises what it claims to be a sovereign power of nullification. Hence, the state will happily continue to comply with all the other federal laws, but ignore the ID law as unconstitutional. The federal government interprets this as an act of rebellion. There are legal routes for disputing whether any given law is constitutional. By denying the courts the chance to order a stay in the operation of the law pending a hearing on the merits, the Governor’s choice of unilateral action produces confrontation and megaphone diplomacy. Had this been a book written for adults, we could have had a sharp political thriller. There’s obviously dissent within Idaho as to the merits of this action. More importantly, the negotiations with other states and the federal government quickly escalates to brinkmanship. This could have been lovingly described with border incidents and local rioting adding pressure to the decision-making process.

Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy

Unfortunately, this is written for fourteen-year-olds and therefore gives us a young protagonist as the point of view. We’re treated to lots of infodumping on the Constitution and how it can be interpreted. That’s when we’re not playing high school football or going through the usual teen angst of first love and what that really means. The hook for the novel is that every last member of the Idaho National Guard has been called up for duty in Boise. There’s a major civil disturbance in the streets and the police can’t cope. The Governor would have preferred seasoned “troops”, but most of the experienced soldiers are overseas. This means our new recruit is sent out into a riot situation with a loaded gun. When someone throws a rock, it cracks both his head and the glass of the gas mask he’s wearing. In the confusion, his gun accidentally discharges. At the sound of the shot, bullets fly from both the members of his platoon and the rioters. People are wounded and killed. It’s one of these avoidable catastrophes. The Governor was wrong to allow raw recruits on to the front line. The officers were at fault in ordering troops into direct confrontation with the rioters carrying loaded guns. With plenty of blame to spread around, the Governor decides to defend the National Guard. None will be identified nor go through trial on homicide charges. So begins the cat-and-mouse game until Wright is outed as the one to fire the first shot. Then we deal with the local fallout as the tension between the President and the Governor intensifies.

The situation is interesting and the way in which the local people respond is credible. No matter what I might think of the romance between Wright and his girl, it remains within the YA limits and parents will not find anything to object to. But this is the end of the good things I have to say about the book. Frankly, I think it seriously misjudges the market, which is a profoundly ironic comment for me to make given my track record of actively disliking most YA fiction. But bear with me for a moment.

This is YA military fiction and aimed mainly at young boys who are not best known for their patience. Although there are set-pieces where our hero and his group of young supporters burst into action, there are also significant gaps between them. During this quiet time, we get discussions of the political picture which most of the shoot ‘em up brigade are likely to find boring. The result is a novel of very uneven pacing. Yes there are themes relevant to the young from asking what duty a son owes his ailing mother, how does any soldier balance commitment to the army against potentially higher moral imperatives, what role is there for honour in these difficult situations, what price should we be prepared to pay to defend our privacy, what does friendship really mean in terms of mutual help and support, and so on? There’s also a lot of discussion about the practicality of the more libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, the right to bear arms, the relationship between the individual, the state and the federal government, and so on. So from a strictly educational point of view, the book is somewhat ambitiously advancing the agenda for discussion of civics and politics. Unfortunately it does so at some length and to the detriment of the action that might induce younger readers to keep turning the pages. I think the book would have been more successful if it had been less overtly didactic. As an adult, the discussion of these issues is painfully superficial and, given the blandness of the action, I found it tedious in the extreme to read this to the end. So Divided We Fall is a book that will appeal to thoughtful fourteen-year-olds and not to adult readers. As a final thought, the jacket artwork is seriously misleading. There are no scenes of helicopters flitting around the White House. That may come in later books. This is much less exciting.

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

Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla

November 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Baghdad Central Elliott Colla

Baghdad Central by Elliott Colla (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014) is another of these deeply political novels which deals with controversial recent history. In one sense, it’s easier for an author to be more dispassionate about the book’s theme if the genre is switched to near-future science fiction or alternate history or an allegorical fantasy. That way, potentially unpalatable “truths” or inferences can be swept away by readers as fiction or willful mischaracterisation to create irony or satire. But the problems immediately pile up if the author is claiming realism. In part this explains why so few American authors have felt comfortable to write about 9/11. The emotional wounds are still raw. But here we have a book about the American occupation of Baghdad although the British and other allies do put in an appearance towards the end.

We begin in April 2003 with the reality of American coalition troops rolling almost unopposed into Baghdad and the decision of Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji to keep his head down until he can see how the conquest will turn out. He hopes he will be passed over in any process of de-Ba’athification. He was only a mid-level follower in the police force. But life is never simple or straightforward. It seems there is another Muhsin al-Khafaji who was quite senior in the party and, as is required when November arrives, our hero is picked up through the natural misidentification. He endures the pain and humiliation as best he can but, when the Americans finally admit their error, they compound his problems by recruiting him as a figurehead senior police officer in the newly reconstituted force. When he prefers not to be seen as a collaborator, his daughter Mrouj is offered treatment at a hospital inside the Green Zone. This earns his reluctant co-operation with the Coalition Provisional Authority created by L. Paul Bremer. Against this background, the book follows the Inspector’s attempts to rescue his brother’s family, investigate the murders of interpreters, and avoid being killed by Iraqi patriots as a collaborator or by the Americans for being an infiltrator.

Elliott Colla

Elliott Colla

By starting with the physical conquest of Baghdad and ending with the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, the author avoids the need to discuss any of the controversy surrounding the legality of the invasion or the subsequent occupation. It simply confronts the hero with the need to survive the arrival of the Americans. The selection of the capture of Saddam is also a convenient place to stop. This is dealt with in a stoic fashion with the relevant Iraqis already resigned to the shift in political power, and the Americans convincing themselves this will see the end of their immediate problems in controlling the population. This does not in any way mean the book is defanged as a critique of the occupation itself. But it does carefully narrow the focus of the criticism and leaves the tone inferential rather than overt in its denunciation of less than appropriate behaviour both by the occupying forces and those opposing them. Insofar as such a stance is possible, this is an author determined to appear even-handed. In the protagonist, he has an older man who’s experienced in navigating difficult political waters. On one side, he must appease the Iraqi militant factions which are determined to harry and strike both at the foreign invaders and those who collaborate with them. But given his daughter’s health is now dependent on treatment by the Americans, he must seem to be actively assisting the CPA. This gives us a chance to view both sides through the eyes of a man to whom poetry and his family are everything. In the end, we see the emergence of greater stability in his life. It’s not, you understand, that either side thinks him indispensable to their needs, but there’s hope he will not be killed for being who he is.

In a way, the book is fairly damning of the CPA, its personnel and the corruption it encourages. It’s equally scathing of the Red Zone occupation managed by the British who are great at the theory of how the whole process of occupation should be managed, but less than effective when it comes to implementing it in the face of local opposition. In genre terms, this makes Baghdad Central partly a political thriller as our hero navigates the minefield, partly a police procedural as he investigates the murder of the interpreters, and partly historical fiction. Books which deal with such controversial source material are not intended to make the reader comfortable. But they must also have sufficient entertainment value to persuade the readers to go through to the end. I think Elliott Colla has struck the right balance here. There’s enough of a mystery to resolve while our protagonist is put in situations where his life is very much at risk for the thrillerish moments. For all those with an interest in what life was like in Baghdad under the CPA, this should be required reading. It comes over as credible and authoritative, making Baghdad Central a book I recommend.

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

The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell

June 20, 2013 1 comment

The Last Fll Meadure by Jack Campbell

The question this novelette from Subterranean Press raises is a simple one. By their nature, all creative works are “political” because the purpose is to interact with the people who experience them. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what the format of the work is. It can be fiction or not, in written form or not. The means of delivery is irrelevant. The content is the essence and each format comes with its own set of rules. So, for example, the rules require a journalist to be truthful whereas, by definition, someone writing fiction is not constrained by reality but is expected to be original, i.e. plagiarism can be a more serious problem. So when a creative person chooses the medium, access to the target audience depends on meeting that audience’s expectations or not pushing the envelope beyond what the audience will accept. So back to the question of “politics”. Although it’s a naive reaction to a book, I found The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G. Hemry) hard to read because the political point of view being expressed is so far removed from my own. I’m not using the word “politics” in its narrow sense of discourse for the purposes of an election or for debating public policy because we take that to mean something potentially divisive or partisan. Ironically, even that definition is probably misleading. Politics fixes the prices for staples like bread or petrol through taxation and the availability or denial of subsidies. As I write this, there are riots in Indonesia over government attempts to end fuel subsidies, Egypt may be about to repeat its bread riots, Zambia is struggling to end the subsidy of maize, America is debating whether to impose controls on the right to buy and carry guns, and so on.

All aspects of our lives are touched by politics in one way or another, and we make political decisions on how to live our lives, i.e. personal choices are self-governance. So when an author decides what to write about, he or she is expressing opinions about the content. In romantic fiction, for example, an author’s lead female character assesses the suitors. What jobs do they have? What possessions do they own? What are their prospects? Are they good breeding material? Are they the right race and religion? And so on. So this book is an exercise in storytelling. It’s an alternate history set in America where the victory against the British and the subsequent introduction of a democratic constitution under Washington have been lost. This describes the beginning of the second revolution and fires the first shots in what will become a civil war. It could have been written in a sly way, allowing issues to arise naturally. Sadly, it’s polemical and, at times, confrontational in asserting the correctness of the author’s point of view. While there’s no doubt we should all resist tyranny, we could have been given a fantasy or allegory to transform the battle against authoritarianism into art. Instead we get a jail break and a first set-piece battle to make it seem “real”. To my mind, this naturalism makes the book highly “political” and too overtly so. If the author is going to write about revolution, the least he could do is hold up a mirror and show us something more interesting about the process.

John Hemby aka Jack Campbell

John Hemby aka Jack Campbell

All alternate history depends on the quality of the “what if”. In this case, we go back to the Presidency under Thomas Jefferson and have Vice President Aaron Burr pack the senior ranks of the army with political appointees. Because the chain of command held up, this converted the army into a political tool and it became a force of repression as rich power-brokers took command in the White House. We then get the usual rewriting of history, military tribunals replacing conventional courts, slavery confirmed throughout America, indentured labour expanded in the North. It’s a classic model of ownership applied to a society. However, a few brave souls begin to organise and speak out. So here we have Abraham Lincoln a prisoner convicted of sedition and Joshua Chamberlain sent to work alongside the slaves on a plantation. Except an increasingly confident army faction takes action and rescues both men, hoping their academic and political expertise will enable them to run a more successful PR campaign to raise the people in support of armed insurrection. This leads us up to the Battle of Gettysburg where the more radical tactics of the New Republic defeat the traditional battle plans of the incumbent army, in part led by political hacks with little actual combat experience. For those of you not up on American history, the title of the book is a reference to the Gettysburg Address given by Abraham Lincoln in November, 1863. When talking about the sacrifices made in the battle as a contribution towards the birth of freedom, Lincoln praises those who fell and gave “the last full measure of devotion”.

In another context, the military fiction might have been entertaining but, in The Last Full Measure, the result is tedious and perfunctory, the sequence of events largely depending on coincidence and happenstance. So this is not recommended unless you want a book that panders to your specific “political”, in this case Republican, point of view, namely that the US Constitution as interpreted by Republicans must be upheld no matter what the cost.

For a review of novels by Jack Campbell, see:
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight.

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

In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell

June 16, 2013 2 comments

In Thunder Forged

There are times when I find Wikipedia a real boon. Since I’m a living dinosaur and know nothing of the real world around me occupied by the “young”, I need a culturally savvy compendium of current wisdom. This digital encyclopaedia, written largely by the young for the young, is an indispensable resource when it comes to phenomena like Warmachine and Iron Kingdoms. I now have the inside dope on these fantasy role-playing games from Privateer Press. So here we have the first of a trilogy set in this RPG universe. In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2013) The Fall of Llael: Book One and, although references are made to dwarves, this is an entirely human story albeit, given the fantasy milieu, some of these humans are sorcerers and mages. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I never research a book until after I’ve read it and so I’m able to report that any prior knowledge of the games is irrelevant to enjoying this book. It’s completely free-standing and, in simple terms, a very slick piece of writing from an author previously unknown to me.

So where are we with this book? This is another of these genre-busting efforts that happily ranges over boundary lines like they were designed to be ignored. Indeed, part of the joy in reading this is that the author really doesn’t care what expectations we might come with, he just writes a damn fine adventure with espionage sitting alongside and then merging with military fiction with a high fantasy context and steampunk weaponry allied with sword and sorcery. Sorry, that’s actually misleading. I should have written “pistols and sorcery” in a blend I can’t recall seeing anywhere else. It’s a very ingenious variation on the theme and worth exploring some more. When you roll it all together, this is a real page turner that doesn’t pause for breath until it reaches the dramatic ending of “Round One” with survivors variously placed waiting for the start of “Round Two”. When you have time to look back and think about it all, the conventional espionage and military manoeuvres make perfect sense so long as you ignore all the weirdness surrounding the steampunk weaponry. And I’m not joking when I tell you these machines are weird.

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

Rather than burden you with silly names to remember, let’s just say the aggressors, and therefore assumed bad guys, have both freestanding mechanical equipment and an exoskeleton suit that enhances the operator’s physical strength and gives real firepower. The freestanding equipment is built for size and strength in both offence and defence. The good guys have developed a range of freestanding mechanical equipment that has much greater mobility but sacrifices defence in weaker armour. The theory is that the faster moving equipment outmanoeuvres the slower larger equipment and wins by multiple hits rather than one major blow. Adding to the mechanical equipment we also have weapons carried by knights on horseback based on electricity. Think of these lances as lightning projectors. The interesting and unexplained mechanical technology is coal-driven and high maintenance. But it also seems to be semi-autonomous. I’m assuming there are Babbage type controls, enhanced by sorcery, that gives these machines varying degrees of “intelligence”. It’s all fun so long as you don’t stop to think about it.

The plot revolves around the good guys’ attempt to enhance their weaponry by subcontracting the work to independent contractors. They took all the usual precautions of dividing the work up so that no one contractor could get a feel for what their “part” did in the whole assembly. Unfortunately, a traitor managed to assemble all the different bits into one blueprint and now holds it for auction between the two major players. Spies from both sides converge to try to steal the blueprint while the bad guys launch a parallel military assault to prevent reinforcements coming in. This leaves a small number of both trained spies and military personnel unexpectedly pitched into the fray to fight it out. The results are genuinely exciting.

So the book is beautifully written in a stripped down, no-nonsense style that blasts us through the action. It’s also innovative and, perhaps even more importantly in these modern days, gender blind. This human society values people for the contribution they can actually make and accepts that contribution without prejudices getting in the way. That means we have men and women fighting side by side without worrying too much about issues of equality. If they’re good enough to be in the army or have been through the training to become spies, they are respected and left to get on with their jobs. This is pleasingly refreshing. This makes In Thunder Forged very entertaining and I look forward to the next in the series.

For a review of a collection by Ari Marmell, see Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror.

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

Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

Battle Royal 2 Requiem (2003)

Having found the first Battle Royale fascinating, I’m now slightly embarrassed to find the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003) offensive. To understand why, we need to review the plot. Set three years after the events of the first film, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has been a catalyst for the formation of a rebel group calling itself the “Wild Seven”. As the government increases the number of young adults forced to participate in the “battles”, the group strikes back in a 9/11 style bombing attack which brings down “twin towers” in Tokyo. This is the group declaring war on the adults. In the name of “justice” the government comes up with a new game plan. A group of school children is to be sent into battle against the Wild Seven. If children are the problem, then children should be the solution. In reality, of course, this is all rather silly. If any group of armed terrorists was sufficiently well organised to bring down two major skyscrapers, every policing and military adult at the disposal of the government would be on their track. The idea this group’s secret base would be identified and then attacked by a ragtag team of untrained students is absurd. But since the point of the film is to give our wild team members a fighting chance of survival, there can be no overflight with some rather large bunker-busting bombs, laser-guided to their destination. Instead, their location on a suitably uninhabited island is noted and the young adults recruited.

 

In this, I note the more explicit television coverage of the students, now fitted out with their collars, being taken into the centre for their orientation briefing. Seeing the terror on their faces would have the desired effect on the television audience. But just why has this bunch of terrorist kids come to this island? It makes absolutely no sense that such an age range of children and young adults would set up camp in an abandoned building like this when they could be enjoying the sunshine in Afghanistan or some other distant place where terrorism is the way of life and there’s safety in numbers. And before you ask, it turns out our terrorists had escaped to Afghanistan where they saw the true horrors of war and we get crass political interludes praising the children who have survived American bombing and other atrocities.

The Wild Seven appeal to the world

The Wild Seven appeal to the world

 

The main link between the two films is the introduction of Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda). She’s the daughter of the teacher in the first film where he’s seen talking with her over the phone on several key occasions. It was not a happy relationship so she’s inevitably conflicted about his death. When she learns of his emotional attachment (in the purest sense of the words) to one of the girl’s in the class, she realises she has somehow missed out. In moments of unrealistic jealousy, she thinks this girl had a kind of parental relationship with her father. She therefore wants revenge and asks to be involved in the attack. This is part of some rather cod psychology on the part of the government. In the terrorist outrages, the Wild Seven have been responsible for the deaths of many adults. In selecting people to pit against these terrorists, the government therefore picks young adults whose parents have died at the hands of the Wild Seven. For the most part, these do not look like conventional students. They all affect a dress code and behaviour pattern suggesting they are more likely to be in sympathy with the terrorists than the government. But this just goes to show that, whether in a fictional or the real world, adults know nothing about children. To prove the point that bullying is not always the right approach, the “teacher” in charge, Riki Takeuchi (Riki Takeuchi), lays down the ground rules. You have three days to kill the terrorists or you die. Anyone who does not want to play the game can volunteer to demonstrate the destructive capabilities of those collars.

 

So this sends off the now forty volunteers on a sea-born landing that’s not exactly a success, leaving the kids running around like headless chickens on the beach (only metaphorically, of course). The shaky cam work is distinctly amateurish and the plot slowly devolves into almost complete stupidity as our amateur soldiers get a kicking from the terrorists who are well dug-in and prepared. The only point of interest in this is that Shiori Kitano proves a good leader and keeps as many alive as possible. Then, when the surviving conscripts have been persuaded to change sides, real soldiers attempt a landing and they are wiped out. This just gets progressively more silly as Riki Takeuchi sits in mission HQ and does nothing.

 

The real problem with the film is that it has no coherent point to make. It could be deeply political and discuss the relationship between a government and its people. Or it could take completely the opposite line and discuss under what circumstances, if any, it’s justifiable for a people to take up arms against its own government. Instead it flirts with inane trivialities. None of the people involved in this have any rational policy to pursue. These terrorists seem to believe it’s morally acceptable to pursue individual liberty even if it means killing large numbers of people on to way to achieving an unrealisable peace. It’s “children of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the chains wrapped around you by your parents”. When this absurd propaganda is broadcast to the world, the Americans do what the Japanese should have done from the outset. They fire a few missiles at the island. This exceptionalism is deeply embarrassing to the Japanese Prime Minister. Its ally thinks it’s politically and morally acceptable to drop bombs on Japanese soil without asking permission first. The Japanese army is sent in. Who needs American missiles when the Japanese army can be sacrificed on a nameless island.

Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda) out for revenge

Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda) out for revenge

 

I suppose that, if I had to put my finger on the horror element in the first film, it’s the willingness of the “friends” to kill each other. This is not a group of strangers brought together like gladiators for an audience to cheer as they kill each other. This is a group that has grown up together in a classroom. They know each other. As a microcosm of the world, they have divided themselves into factions, grouped around stronger personalities. So when they are abandoned on the island, it’s like a family forced to turn on itself. Brother kills brother, sister kills surviving brother, and so on. The effect of the slaughter is to highlight the immorality of the state in putting these children in that position. Thematically, the sequel changes the focus and with it, loses the moral plot.

 

In the year this film was released, it was estimated that children were fighting as soldiers in most of the ongoing conflict situations around the world. That’s fighting both for and against governments. It’s just the luck of where they happen to be born and which side gets to recruit them first. In making heroes of children fighting in this film, I fear the film-makers have stepped over a line. It shows children fighting heroically and killing adult soldiers. This is an evil condemned by all civilised states. Using children for military purposes is considered the ultimately immoral act not only because it trains the innocent to be killers, but also because it forces adults to kill children in self-defence. When states only reluctantly send their women into battle, this is a film that glorifies children fighting against adults in an all-out war. In modern theatres of war, soldiers must now look on anything that moves as a potential threat. In the good old days of warfare, soldiers would kill the enemy men, rape their women and “save” the children. With today’s children carrying AK47s, the children are no longer waiting to be saved.

 

I’m open to be convinced by any point of view. Although instinctively I think child soldiers are victims to be pitied and, if possible, rehabilitated, the last thing I expected was a film turning such children into heroes. It’s all there. The martial music, the camera angles and general cinematography that dehumanises the adult enemies in battle, and so on. Worse, it shows the hard core warriors actively recruiting the naive children sent to kill them. By the end of the film, the newcomers are as heroic as their peers when it comes to killing the adult enemy. Perhaps I’m being a little naive in viewing the children as like a virus out to infect children around the world, inciting them to rise up and kill their oppressive parents and all other adults. I was waiting for the film-makers to condemn this. I hoped the ending would reset the moral compass so this alternate history version of Japan could find its way out of this internecine situation. Except what we get is implicit approval for continuing conflict and death. It’s all binary: black and white, adult and child, war and peace. Until everyone learns to compromise, how can anything be resolved? You would hope the adults would know better, that they would create a situation in which even these irrational children could be brought back into the human fold. Except adults in authority positions are not often forgiving. That leaves it to subordinates to decide on the ground, what the outcome should be. So maybe the only possibility is to wait it all out. As we live through winter, it may seem as though spring will never come. Yet, unless the winter is a post-apocalypse affair induced by nuclear fallout, spring always does come and with it, the possibility of a better place to live. Or maybe only death brings peace. Overall this means Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII is neither dull nor unexciting. Taken individually, some scenes match those from great examples of war films. But the morality of the military fiction we’re expected to find exciting makes the film offensive.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)

 

Night & Demons by David Drake

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Night & Demons

Night & Demons by David Drake (Baen, 2012) has some of the most interesting introductions I’ve read for a long time. Too often authors throw us an occasional crumb from their tables. Putting all these pages together gives a real autobiographical insight into how the stories came to be written and what their significance is.

“The Red Leer” is a classic piece of writing, nicely setting up the situation and elegantly arriving at the not unexpected conclusion. This is not to undervalue the story in any way. Once you begin with two men breaking into a Red Indian burial site, you know the likely outcomes. This is as good as it gets with this type of story. “A Land of Romance” is one of these pleasingly humorous fantasy stories in the style of Sprague de Camp. As is required we have a bright young man who, when presented with an opportunity, particularly one involving a pretty young girl, manages to come out smelling of roses (or some other appropriate flower). “Smokie Joe” is a nice long-spoon story in which the Devil gently muscles into organised crime and pushes sins to the corruptible for the rewards they bring. It displays a slightly unsual sense of humour about the entire operation which means some may find the descriptions of sexual disease a little daunting. But that’s the point of “horror” stories, isn’t it? “Awakening” is a very short piece that speculates on how far you can take denial. “Denkirch” is the first story he published. It’s a direct invocation of the Lovecraft formula with obsessed scientist driven to use himself as the test subject in his latest experiment. Who needs books and spells when you have the advantages of modern science. It almost certainly wouldn’t sell today but, in its time, it was passable. “Dragon, the Book” is another elegant fantasy which reruns the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. “The False Prophet” takes us into the classical realm where Drake is particularly comfortable with a fine story of a charlatan who isn’t quite what his loyal followers take him to be. It’s another of these stories where “adventure” and “mystery” shade into an atmosphere piece with fantasy, supernatural and, perhaps, even science fictional possibilities. One or two moments made me smile which is unusual in stories of this type. “Black Iron continues with the same characters in a story with different tempo as the merchant member of the duo explains how he came into possession of an interesting sword. The final contribution to this mini trilogy is “The Shortest Way” which suggests a reason for civility when asking for directions. We then get back into vaguely Lovecraftian territory with a nod and a wink to the worship of large tentacled underwater creatures.

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

David Drake still enjoying the little things in life

“The Land Toward Sunset” is a story of mighty heroism as a character out of Karl Wagner’s universe is given a whistle-stop tour of the remnant of Atlantis. I suppose it’s quite good as an example of the older style of high fantasy sword and sorcery writing but it goes on too long for my taste. “Children of the Forest” is one of these wise fantasies that sets out to tell the reader about the choices we make as humans. Necessity, real or imagined, often forces decisions we later regret. Sometimes, when we have only instinct to rely on, we run home — a choice that can bring disaster following close behind. “The Barrow Troll” is an old idea but very elegantly told in this story of a Northern berserker’s quest for the gold reputedly guarded by a troll. The casual brutality of the man contrasts sharply with the “soft” German priest whose involuntary role is, perhaps surprisingly, to bless the venture. “Than Curse the Darkness” is a excellent Lovecraftian Mythos story in which a very determined and knowledgeable woman steps up when the threat is maturing and speaks the words of power before the full awakening. It’s very nicely done in a period style with lots of interesting background information on how life used to be in the Congo. Moving back up North, “The Song of the Bone” is nicely unexpected as, with the right music, you wake like a bear with a sore head. “The Master of Demons” is magnificently ironic as, in the shortest of stories, a reckless magician comes to understand the magnitude of his error.

“The Dancer in the Flames” is a fascinating fusion as a conventional war story set in Vietnam becomes a supernatural communion with a woman in a tricky situation. “Codex” is another highly original variation on an old theme, this time using the information from an old book for arranging a trading opportunity with a not wholly unpredictable outcome. The fun comes in the nature of the book and in guessing what will happen. “Firefight” is a taut and exciting page ripped from Vietnam’s bloody history books and converted into a confrontation between a battle-hardened US unit and a supernatural threat. This is one of the best stories in the collection. Almost as good, “Best of Luck” has an enemy within the troop so, when the Viet Cong appears, the soldiers are between a rock and a hard place. “Arclight” continues the absorption of military experience into a supernatural context. This time the troop discovers a small temple with big trouble written all over it. Perhaps the idol represents a power that can follow them wherever they go. Perhaps there are other powers that might have a say in that. Then comes “Something Had to be Done” which is the best of the lot. It’s a thankless task to visit the homes of those who’ve been killed on active duty to report the circumstances of each son’s death. This time, the sergeant who was with the soldier on his last mission draws the short straw.

“The Waiting Bullet” gets us back into conventional supernatural territory with a pleasing ghost story. It’s beautifully set up with a nice plot to unwind as the first sight of the ghost triggers the slow release of the backstory to the cabin where the hero is staying. “The Elf House” is a rather fey fantasy that lacks an edge. It moves along very professionally but has no real sense of danger. This contrasts sharply with “The Hunting Ground” which is another of these Vets under pressure stories. This time, two men recently returned from combat find an unexpected threat in their neighbourhood. Fortunately, they are able to give as good as they get. “The Automatic Rifleman” beat me. I had it back-to-front when I was reading it so the ending caught me by surprise. It’s very clever, taking a simple story of an assassination and turning it into something altogether more strange. “Blood Debt” deals with a slightly awkward social question. What exactly do we owe a family member who dies? Must we take revenge? If so, what price must we pay? This is a very effective story of witchcraft in a modern setting but with traditional results. Finally, “Men Like Us” takes us into a post-apocalyptic future where a dedicated team ensures no-one will continue the use of nuclear power. Overall this makes for a remarkably eclectic collection with the majority of the earlier stories holding up extremely well. Those with a military background are particularly effective as David Drake mines his past for backgrounds and characters. Definitely a book to savour.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger

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

Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter

February 22, 2013 Leave a comment

bronze-summer-the-northland-trilogy

Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2012) is the second in The Northland Trilogy and we’ve moved on from the primitive days of the first brick built dykes. Now more than a thousand years nearer our time in this alternate history saga, we’ve got a major civil engineering project using concrete to keep the sea at bay. Yes these clever primitives have cracked the code on concrete. Cement has been around for several million years but, in our timeline, it was the Romans who developed “proper” concrete, using it for all their major structures from around 300 BC onwards. These eager beavers have completely excluded the sea from what is currently the bed of the North Sea. The “wall” now effectively creates a continuous land mass from Wales through to Europe and beyond leaving the current British Government with serious immigration problems as anyone who wants can just walk in (even from Romania if they want to walk that far). For those who have boating experience, a short sail north brings them to Iceland (then known as Kirke’s Land) where there’s a pivotal volcano that decides to make its mark on the world. You have to sympathise with these volcanos. For centuries they sit on their holes into the mantle, each one claiming they are the real-deal supervolcano and they just can’t agree. So periodically, one gets the bit between its teeth and, to prove it’s the biggest and baddest supervolcano, it erupts chucking out local lava but, more seriously, ash which triggers a small ice age featuring nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrels if you’re lucky, a major ice age featuring species extinction and mass death in the human community if you’re less lucky. Fortunately, for now, the ice is only a gleam in the eye of the epilogue.

My apologies, I’m wandering around here (like many of the characters in this book) and not getting to the point of the review (many of the characters never end up in an ideal position either). So here we have this supermassive concrete structure that runs from here to there. It has a dual function. Obviously it keeps out the sea but, more importantly, it’s also a home to the people. Gone are the days when these primitives lived in caves. Now they’ve got their own continuous high-rise apartment block with major communities at regular intervals along its length. For this to work as a society, what you have to imagine is an amazing belief in the availability of free food. Most of our civilisations have developed with an agricultural base. Once there’s a food surplus, people can urbanise. Not in this book! Here we have an urban community in a ribbon strip development that creates a significant amount of unoccupied land. Quite why no other people invade this free land is left unexplained. The Brits, the French and the Germanic tribes know to stay out of Northland. This allows a hunter-gatherer society to prosper (with fish and sea food as a supplement). Obviously this also depends on there being little or no population growth so that natural sources of food are not exhausted.

Stephen Baxter with centuries flashing by

Stephen Baxter with centuries flashing by

So when the ash cloud screws up the already unstable weather systems, the fragile economies in the rest of the region collapse and conflict over access to increasingly scarce resources is inevitable. We start off in Northland with what I expected to become a murder mystery but the lead character, Milaqa, encouraged by her uncle Teel, is no investigator. In fact, for most of the book, she’s rather a diffident individual who shows little enthusiasm and not a lot of intelligence. The one immediately responsible for the death actually admits it about one-third of the way through and we get on with other matters. We also have two characters starting off in Troy. Qirum is a Trojan wheeler-dealer who “buys” Kilushepa, the deposed queen of the Hatti — the alternate history version of the Hittites living in the region we call Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Coming from even further away is Caxa who’s from a culture modelled on the Toltecs. Initially, everyone converges on the Northlands, but after a grand bargain is struck, Qirum, Kilushepa, Milaqa and Teel set off for the long journey to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. We then have minor skirmishes, larger scale conflict, quite a lot of brutality and an outbreak of disease.

The problem with all this is that the narrative structure lacks a clear focus. We have incidents and events dotted around the landscape and along the timeline as people travel hither and thither, with set pieces at the key locations as in a kind of historical drama with military overtones. Although there’s a chance for some character development, the primary protagonists are really plot devices to say and do the things necessary to show the development of the environmental disasters as the years pass by. This is not to say the broad flow of history is uninteresting, but I confess it failed to stave off boredom. I gave up caring who anyone was and just read it to the end to see what happened. It’s a shame really because there’s much inventiveness on display and significant rigour in the development of the climatic shifts and cultural consequences. But for me Bronze Summer proved rather tedious. I say this despite the introduction of combat and war which, in other hands, often enlivens proceedings. In this case, it was brutality and cruelty by the numbers with little emotional significance. I can’t honestly say this is worth reading unless you want to bridge from Stone Spring which was much better to the hopefully equally good concluding volume.

For a review of the first in the trilogy, see Stone Spring.

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

The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007)

February 1, 2013 1 comment

The Warlords

The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007) is an epic tragedy out of Hong Kong directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. It uses the the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion in the period between 1850 and 1875 to explore the balance to be struck between individual friendship and the national interests. In a way, this is not dealing with different issues. People become friends for a wide variety of reasons. They stay loyal to each other through thick and thin. But in a way, the nature of the bond between them is always caught up in what they are doing with their lives. If they are lowly peasants living in a war-torn land, the purpose of their combined strength is to survive. If they cannot do so on their own, they rally the villagers and steal food from wherever it can be found. Morality is put aside as food is the greater need. If those who have the food will not willingly share, the need justifies killing them to take the food. It may not be pretty but that’s the way the world works when hunger and death stalk the land.

 

So here comes the first question. If you rally enough people to become effective in robbing others to accumulate all the supplies necessary to keep the village safe, you attract attention. More starving people come and ask to join your village so they can share in your success, but troops patrolling the neighbourhood may not be so happy with the military potential of your followers. The question is: what price peace? Let’s say troops come to your village and take all the food you have stolen, how do you react? They have guns and a willingness to kill anyone who gets in their way. Because you cannot defend the weak and helpless, you let them take the food. But you have a duty to your people. Suppose you could get weapons, you could defend the village against all who threaten it. This gives birth to the next question.

Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro swear the oath as blood brothers

Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro swear the oath as blood brothers

 

This is a country in civil war. Worse, the power of the Qing Dynasty is corrupt so there’s unlikely to be help from above. That means selling yourself and your brothers to a local lord in return for. . . Well, the local lord is not going to give an unknown, untested group anything. So you have to do a deal. You will fight to take a small city. If you win, you will take all the food and wealth you can pillage. The lord smiles. You fight and win. Your villagers are mostly happy. They now have enough food to last them a year and wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Of course a significant number of the men from the village have been killed. But that was a price worth paying, wasn’t it? Except, here comes the next question.

 

You have proved yourself formidable. The lord you sold your service to wants more from you. There are other cities to take and battles to fight. Can you deny him? If you do, how will he react? Will he let you live quietly in your village with all your food and wealth? You see, that’s the trouble with roles. Once you fit into a role, you are expected to stay in it. As a friend, you stay loyal. As a villager, you work for the good of all. As a soldier you fight to survive and for the greater cause. As the successful leader, you are given more troops and new targets. In all this, you tell yourself you retain a moral core. You are fighting for peace so that the poor never need fear oppression again. Except in the Qing Dynasty, you should know that’s always going to be a lie. So it all comes down to expediency. For so long as you are a winner in war, all the people within your growing power can be safe. That’s what you tell yourself. But at some point, the Empress is going to see you as a threat. Your power has increased. You are now protecting a large number of people from her. That can never be tolerated. Death is the only release from this cycle because it means you no longer have to fight.

Jinglei Xu is caught in the middle

Jinglei Xu is caught in the middle

 

Cao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) have organised their village into an armed band of robbers. They meet up with General Ma Xinyi (Jet Li), the lone survivor of a major battle. In early fighting for food, they save each others lives and become blood brothers. Unfortunately, General Ma covets Lian (Jinglei Xu) who has an intermittent relationship with Cao. This makes everything precarious because personal morality will draw the two villagers in a different direction to the general, and sexual jealousy will further drive a wedge between them. People grow into habits and, unless care is taken, habits become obsessions. When you see something you want, the drive to take it grows stronger. That can be for abstract “things” like power or for personal satisfaction (whether just for sex or for the more easily lost love). Andy Lau is a simple man who never really wants to be a hero, but he becomes one because all those around him see an honest man doing his best. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a weaker man who tries to keep the peace between the other two, but ends up being dazzled by the brilliance of the General. He should be the stabilising factor. Sadly he ends up souring the relationships because he loses track of what’s right and wrong. Jet Li is pragmatic. He will do deals with anyone to get the results he wants. He wants to be a winner and, if his blood brothers get in the way, they will have to be sacrificed. He has learned the ways of the Qing court and is trapped by that knowledge and experience. He cannot be honest and loyal because no-one around him before now has ever shown those virtues. He’s incapable of trust. He commands. The others are mere followers.

 

The result is all rather depressing. There’s a lot of bloody fighting and we see large numbers killed, some in battle and others executed simply because they were soldiers and there was no food to give them as prisoners. Only Andy Lau’s character comes out of all this looking good. Everyone else is a victim of their own selfishness and weakness. If such a tragedy of military adventurism and political opportunism is your cup of tea, The Warlords or 投名狀 will not disappoint. My own preference in storytelling is for something slightly more uplifting.

 

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