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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.

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest

Inexplicables

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest (The Clockwork Century Volume 5) demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a longer running series. When it’s new, everyone can be genuinely excited by the novelty of the ideas and the loving craft that has gone into realising those ideas on paper. Those who follow the genre will know Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is no mean achievement. It signals a book that has striven to reach the pinnacles and only just fallen short. I think there were three reasons for its success in 2009. The first was the resurgence of steampunk in the oughties had not produced the greatest of works. This novel had a depth of invention that none of the others had achieved. The mechanics of survival in the gas-infected Seattle were beautifully worked out. Add in the claustrophobic atmosphere and the flesh-eating rotters, and you had a winner. The next three books see the author ringing the changes to keep the ideas fresh. Although there was some overlap in the characters, each novel or novella featured a different set of technological innovation. Despite this braveness in continually expanding the extent of the alternate history and looking in more detail at developments in the dirigibles, steam-power generally and submarines, I had the sense the series was slowly running out of steam. This is confirmed by the latest book’s return to Seattle. I think this was a fundamental mistake.

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Assessing the “big picture”, there were fascinating possibilities in moving up to proper authorial omniscience and looking squarely at the broader conflict between the Northern and Southern states with Texas almost neutral. We’ve only viewed this version of the Civil War tangentially. There have been mere glimpses of the politics of the conflict and of the various attempts to resolve the core disputes and produce peace. Yet instead of helping us understand the context for this war, we revert to a Young Adult format rerun of Seattle with tedious results. This time, young Rector Sherman reaches his eighteenth birthday and gets thrown out of the orphanage. Driven by guilt that he might have been responsible for the death of Zeke, he decides to enter the city and try to lay the ghost. It should be said the boy is a fairly hopeless sap addict and not wholly rational when he takes this decision. But, as is always the case with books like this, once the primary protagonist has committed himself to the roll of the dice, you have to go with it.

Thereafter, we have all the faults of a YA approach holding this book back plus a genuinely silly introduction. Dealing with the latter first, about a third of the way through the book, I decided there must be a zoo within the walls or just outside, and one or more orangutans had escaped and entered the city. Boy was I barking up the wrong tree! You see I’d thought the essence of steampunk was some degree of realism and not outright fantasy horror. Even the author’s decision might have been defensible if it had been scary. But when Captain Cly can restrain it. . . Even allowing for the gas weakening this usually unstoppable force of nature, this plot element is a non-starter except in a YA novel that’s pulling its punches. Now add in one of the boys can sooth the savage beast. Well that’s what you get when you mix youngsters with the supernatural. They’re all so dim, wandering around the place as if they were invulnerable. After all, the rotters have either been carefully shepherded from the city or pulled to pieces by the newcomer(s). That reduces the danger factor to an effective zero level. So they can do their Famous Five freelance crime-solving act with only a few relatively ineffective adult drug dealers to worry about. It’s a sadly inadequate contribution to a reasonably entertaining series. Even the steampunk element is glossed over. Rather than repeat all the descriptions from the earlier Boneshaker, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of underground and how to get around safely.

So no matter how innovative and successful the first two books in this series, this is one to avoid unless you are reading as a committed fan. I hate to say it but The Inexplicables is terrible.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum

automatic woman

Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) forces me to ask the ultimately paradoxical question. To what extent should a fantasy be realistic? Obviously if the action is set in Fairyland with an attack upon Titania by some vampires passing through on their way to an urban setting, there’s no need for anyone to speak in a particular way or for Elvish Magic Johnson to be able to hit more home runs after his retirement from basketball. Everything can be the product of an imagination allowed free rein. But suppose the fantasy is set in a real place and features historically verified individuals? Well this is where the paradox comes in. In theory, fantasy is the polar opposite of realism. It sets out to describe events which are or were impossible in our version of reality. A trope now establishing itself as routine introduces anachronistic technology to history. Set in Victorian England, we’re assailed by steampunk stories of clockwork and steam-powered robots and computers. Indeed, even with the assistance of modern technology, much of what we see described is impossible. Perhaps that’s actually the point of these stories: to introduce the impossible and so challenge our view of history. Perhaps Babbage could have succeeded in 1822 if the people in power had funded him. Sorry, Babbage did build his machine which was a state secret. It was later updated to become Colossus, used at Bletchley Park to win World War II. Except isn’t that science fiction? Ah it’s so difficult to get a precise grasp of this slippery question. Anyway, the point of all this is to decide whether a story claiming to be set in London in 1888 should be even remotely realistic.

In this book, we have a steampunk version of Pygmalion. You remember him, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue. Venus then granted the man’s wish and allowed the statue to come to life. They married and had a son — the perfect proof that she’d become a real woman. We should also note Hephaestus made automata to help out in his workshops, but he was semi-divine so that’s just fantasy. Back to the current book. A lonely scientist makes a troop of ballet dancers but he invests such creativity and love in the prima ballerina that she becomes something more than just gears and drive shafts. While this is not canonical Pygmalion because the machine does not become flesh, it does begin to exhibit symptoms of independent thought. It’s the AI gaining sentience trope borrowed from science fiction. In the cinema, it’s potentially the dance scene from Metropolis (1927) where the artificial Maria captivates the most important men of the city in their lust. In this work, the engineer was secretly supported by Charles Darwin who believed the creation of artificial intelligence was the first step towards achieving immortality. Needless to say, there’s an evil nemesis lurking in the background who will stop at nothing to obtain the secret of the “automatic woman” and it’s for our hero to run interference so that those working for Darwin can repair the “woman” and enable her to achieve her potential. Except, of course, the nemesis takes hostages and requires our hero to acquire the secrets of the “woman”. Ah how awkward it is to be caught in the middle. Perhaps that signals the need to meet Rasputin and Bram Stoker, and take a whistle-stop tour through the laws of King Hammurabi of Babylonia and a trip round Europe by train and dirigible.

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

The strength and weakness of this book is the open-ended approach to the plot. As a first-person narrative, we’re pitched into our hero describing how he came to be lying unconscious next to the body of the scientist who made the prima ballerina. Thereafter events just follow on. I could say it’s all great fun as if that’s a way of forgiving potential lapses. There are two fairly serious problems for me as a reader. The first is that what’s presented as a first-person narrative in British English is anything but. This is clearly a book written by an American. Is this a fatal problem? Not a bit. I find much of it amusing. Since almost all the readers for this book will be Americans, they will not appreciate how far from the mark the arrow falls. They will almost certainly find the language accessible to their modern sensibilities. The second problem is the almost total lack of realism in the descriptions of London and Oxford. Having just read a meticulously recreated Victorian London adventure by James P Blaylock, I’m only too aware of how threadbare this is. But, again, the point of books like this is not to produce historical accuracy. We’re here for the steampunk adventure with a few facts everyone will recognize as pegs on which to hang the plot. Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story, these authors cry as they ride roughshod over the facts, hopefully remembering Mark Twain was a damn fine author.

I can’t help but notice anachronisms — it’s in my blood — so when Arthur Conan Doyle appears on the scene, takes out a syringe and pumps our hero full of penicillin, I tend to think, “Hmmm. This book is set in 1888 and the antibiotic was not discovered until 1928. What a pleasing coincidence of 8s.” There’s also some interesting discussion on evolution that certainly would not have been rehearsed in Victorian times. None of these things need concern us. Automatic Woman has its moments and rides quickly to an ending that would permit further adventures. There are fights, exchanges of gunfire and explosions. As far as it goes, it’s good of its type.

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

The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock

February 16, 2013 4 comments

the-aylesford-skull-book-cover

Nostalgia is a rather curious emotional response to a current stimulus or event. Like Pavlov’s dog, we seem to have programmed ourselves to take pleasure in recalling past events. This is not to say we find today’s realities unpleasant and wish to escape. It’s simply that something triggers our memories of past events. It can be coming across an old photograph or a snatch of music half-heard on the radio. Perhaps a casual word in conversation or revisiting a place we knew well as children throws us back in time. No matter what the stimulus, the result is a mixture of faint romanticism and some melancholy, i.e. fairly powerful emotions associated with pleasure are tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. The evocation of the past is strong. We have a sense of “truth” but there’s also a slightly gratuitous and shallow feeling. In our more rational moments, we acknowledge our memories are gilded. That’s it’s convenient to remember the good stuff and push the bad into the deeper recesses of memory.

As I approach the end of my days, I find myself caught in two quite different waves of nostalgia. One is the more conventional sense that there were many aspects of my life as a child and young adult that were positive and constructive. While I would not want to return to that time — there were too many hardships — I miss the sense of innocence that came from growing up in an information bubble. Today the world intrudes in our lives at every point with mass media and the internet competing for our attention, passing on both substantive and trivial news of the latest events from around the world. I’m not sure that the culture of childhood today is giving the young a chance to develop their full potential. The result of this first stage nostalgia is that I’m profoundly relieved to be old and therefore no longer caught up in the lives of the ephemeral Mayflies who declare themselves “adults” before they have had the chance to understand the benefits of remaining young.

The other form of nostalgia flows from the emotional constructs I formed as a child. Even in those days, I was an obsessive reader, ploughing relentlessly through both British and American fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. At that time, my mind was filled with a sense of wonder that the recent past had been so exciting. My memories of this childhood nostalgia for all things Victorian and Edwardian create significant emotional responses to modern subgenres like steampunk. This second tier response reinforces my more general nostalgia for “the past”. I’m therefore predisposed to like modern authors like Tim Powers and James P Blaylock because they are playing with the mythology of the past. Their interests and sensibilities overlap the remembered fictional worlds from Dickens to the penny dreadfuls, from Jack London to the pulps. Yes, it’s actually a false nostalgia, but I enjoy revisiting it every now and again.

James P Blaylock triggering my nostalgia response

James P Blaylock triggering my nostalgia response

The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (Titan Books, 2013) continues the saga of Langdon St James and his battle with Dr Ignacio Narbondo. Although I dislike the publishers’ labelling conventions, it’s actually useful to list the different features of this novel. Insofar as it contains real-world characters like Arthur Conan Doyle and, offstage, Gladstone, we might choose to think of this as being alternate history. It nicely captures the time when London was in a ferment because of the activities of the Fenians and the anarchists. Set in 1883, the world was reeling from the Phoenix Park murders and Gladstone was under pressure to repeal the Irish coercion laws. This book produces a complex plot to destabilise the government and evict Gladstone from power. It’s a great success as a Victorian political thriller. As a second strand, it’s steampunk. History tells us that, in 1883, Gaston Tissandier made the first electric-powered flight in a dirigible. In this book, we have a sophisticated electric motor and steering system for an airship which flies around London. There’s also some interesting technology for using coal dust as an explosive with portable systems for deploying the dust in suspension and then igniting it. Then we have a supernatural element which cloaks the conventional adventure in fantasy motley. Put simply our evil genius has developed a system for trapping the soul in the skull upon death. He plans an explosive release of the trapped spirit which should force open a door. Who can say where the door will lead nor, if it opened in Hell, what might come through into the human realm. We’re also treated to various other supernatural phenomena in Victorian style with references to table-turning, Planchette boards and other forms of spirit-based communication and foretelling.

Overall, it’s a beautifully constructed adventure novel in the Edwardian style. In spirit, it reminds me of thrillers by Sapper (pseudonym of H C McNeile) although, this being a modern book, we get better written female characters and none of the cultural baggage that would make a real period book less than acceptable to modern readers, i.e. the disparaging views of the minorities, the ghastly sexism and the increasingly virulent fascism that came to characterise so much of the fiction written between the wars. From this you will understand this is not a Dickensian novel. Although set in Victorian England, we have a sanitised version of life in and around London. This is very much a “fantasy” version of the capital as befits the steampunk subgenre. We can’t have revolutionary scientific advances against too dark a background. The book is intended as adventure and not a political satire or a realistic depiction of life in some of the more dangerous parts of the capital. That we can have a young Arthur Conan Doyle fighting alongside Langdon St James is simply part of the fun. As you would expect, there’s mayhem and death, political skullduggery and a threatened supernatural armageddon. But it’s all told with breathless excitement and regular edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.

All of which should signal my immense enjoyment. Although I might cavil at one or two of the vocabulary choices, this is a remarkably sustained piece of writing in a period style suitable for modern sensibilities. I was entranced. That it’s all magnificent nonsense simply adds to the fun of it all. No matter what your age or predisposition to nostalgia, The Aylesford Skull is a book you should read.

For a review of another book by James B Blaylock, see Zeuglodon.

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

A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment

ARedSunAlsoRises

Language is a fickle friend. Just when you think you’ve met all its conditions for a lasting relationship of real meaning, you can suddenly find yourself cast adrift in a fog of uncertainty. To put it mildly, this is a most disconcerting experience. You know all the words but somehow your grasp upon them becomes slippery, as if they are resisting your best efforts to grab hold of the ones best suited to say what you want to say. In my own case, the excuse is one of age. Naturally, as dementia beckons, I’m overcome by the delusion I’m still making sense when, actually, my word selection has gone to pot as senior citizen moments of mental vacuity become whole minutes or even longer. Why am I delaying a discussion of A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2012)? Well, there’s something of a problem with the language and the debate about beliefs and psychology is unconvincing.

Back when I was emerging from the mists of childhood, I enjoyed myself demolishing Victorian and Edwardian adventure books. There’s a wonderfully naive quality to them as heroes dash around, avoiding the predictable annihilation by running faster, jumping higher or being prepared to crawl through sewers no other self-respecting human being would ever think of entering. In the midst of all this, some authors had the temerity to interweave ideas. It’s a radical thing to do. When we’re all expecting derring-do, the author suddenly switches his attention to a discussion of something of profound importance. A classic, albeit slightly later, example of this phenomenon is the Space Trilogy by C S Lewis which pretends to be science fiction but is actually rehearsing the process Christianity has gone through to emerge from early myth-based beliefs into the current faith-based form. So what we have here is a journal supposedly written by a Victorian man who passes through a dimensional fold and, with a young woman by his side, finds himself on an alien world. It’s obviously not a spoiler to reveal this interdimensional movement is not permanent because our hero returns to Earth to write the journal we read (as in Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels). So like Elwin Ransom from the Space Trilogy, our hero is sent off to another world so he can learn to be a better person.

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

Mark Hodder covering his eyes as the windows to his soul

The other book I need to mention is Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement which, I confess, is one of my favourite books from the 1950s. It catalogues the exploration of the planet Abyorman as it follows its unusual orbit around a binary star, producing sixty-five-year cycles of temperate and hot climate. As Nils Kruger, our young hero, and Dar, his alien “friend”, walk across the landscape, they realise there are extensive ruins from a completely different civilisation yet none of the current inhabitants seem to know anything about the builders. It’s a nice puzzle for the protagonists to solve. A mirror image to this idea emerges in Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton and parallels are found in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. A Red Sun Also Rises is a more sophisticated variation on the original theme with what begins as a nicely balanced system thrown out of kilter by the unfortunate arrival of an outsider.

If this was a straight science fiction novel of a young human couple who are sent to another world and struggle to survive in a hostile environment, I think it would have been very good. The basic plot idea has been well thought through and there are enough obvious threads to make the threats to our two humans potentially terrifying. But there are two authorial interventions to contend with. The first is the language. Over the last ten years, the occasional book reproducing early writing styles has become two or three bookshop shelves. Some modern authors have been hooked on the notion their work is somehow better if they wrap up their science fiction or fantasy as if written by Jane Austen or some other luminary. Even though I think most of them deluded, their books have been selling in sufficient numbers that each year sees more titles emerging. In this case, we start off with a young and terminally inexperienced Anglican clergyman in the 1880s who dutifully shows Christian charity to a disabled woman. This section is written in a reasonably conventional Victorian style which grows slightly more purple when they move to London. At this point we have the primary theme introduced.

He has been displaced from his quiet parish through his naive reaction to an amusingly corrupt family. Early on in London, he reads Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Later, he literally stumbles on the first victim killed by Jack the Ripper. This produces an emotional crisis. He’s been burdened by guilt because he lacks his father’s simple faith in God. Now he knows true fear. Put the two together and this is not the ideal state of mind in which a man should set off as a missionary. He rationalises his experiences as proving some people are inherently evil. He worries that he lacks essential goodness and is therefore fated to end up as evil as the murderer of the prostitute in Whitechapel. This is a version of Platonic psychology which assumes universal versions of good and evil exist. Further, although there’s a rational part of every mind that should prevail, there are appetites that can overwhelm reason. Such moral weaknesses can lead irrevocably to evil if the desires are strong enough.

If we had stayed with Jules Verne filtered through H G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, I would have lived with the philosophical debate as fitting into the character of our rather pathetic specimen of humanity as hero. Unfortunately, shortly after arriving on the planet, the natives suddenly affect a spirited version of English not unlike that spoken by the characters in P G Wodehouse. Frankly, this killed my interest almost stone dead. I read it through to the end to see how it was all resolved. There are fantastical machines, potentially in what we now call a steampunk style although they are more ERB-like with aircraft and submarines powered by the energy released from crystals. There are some rather superficial political diversions into the potential merits of hive socialism enforced by a form of mind control and our hero finally reaches peace of mind by abandoning the Platonic view of moral psychology and all associated notions of a kind of internal war between forces of good and evil. Rather he sees everything as being on a single scale of goodness. The psychological resolution is therefore somewhat adjacent to the Aesopian “Hercules and the Waggoner” and the idiomatic need to avoid judging books by their covers. Sadly, A Red Sun Also Rises is a backward step for Mark Hodder. His first two books were exuberant fun. This is somewhat dour and, for me, uninvolving.

For reviews of the other books by Mark Hodder, see:
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock

November 27, 2012 2 comments

Zeuglodon by James P Blaylock (Subterranean Press, 2012) takes me back to the world of my childhood where I cut my reading teeth on adventure books by Enid Blyton. As a word of explanation to those not lucky enough to have discovered series like the Famous Five when young, the books are about children in danger: the titular five are Julian, Dick, Anne and Georgina (George) and their dog Timothy. They were always having adventures and catching criminals, hopefully always being back home in time for tea. To get this current team changed around so they can participate in this homage to Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Fort and others, picture yourself standing on a sprung wooden floor in a thick fog — I know it’s a challenge to imagine adverse weather conditions inside a building, but bear with me. This is the game being played in this book. You can hear the movements of anyone in the room but cannot see them. You now hear ten pairs of footsteps so, naturally, you assume five people are approaching you. Imagine your surprise when it proves to be three children and a dog. It’s this kind of intensely logical and utterly convincing analysis that appeals to both young and old readers who want to experience a kind of affectionate nostalgia. A view of a past full of gentle wonder as filtered through fantasy rose-tinted spectacles.

James P Blaylock aka Perkins

 

So let’s meet the cast of characters. This is a first-person narrative by Katherine Perkins. She’s twelve and already an expert in everything but most especially in cryptozoology. She has two younger cousins, Brendan and Perry. The dog is called Hasbro (which is presumably a reference to his love of games with the kids or the Langdon St Ives’ valet — your choice). With mother missing in acton, Katherine is in the care of John Toliver Hedgepeth. He’s a genius, a member of the Order of St. George, and an inventor in the Heath Robinson style, being able to make a radio out of the junk laying around in his attic. In distant LA, Aunt Ricketts is convinced this is an unsuitable arrangement: a nutty eccentric man in charge of three children. So she gets Child Services on the job to see whether she can bring the children to a safer, more caring environment. To that end, Ms Henrietta Peckworthy appears on the scene to investigate the quality of care the children are receiving. Unfortunately, her arrival coincides with unusual weirdness so the whole issue of custody has to be shelved while the adventures move into high gear as one or more villains kidnap a mermaid (well, that’s not quite right but close enough for these purposes) and make demands. That gets our team on to the SS Clematis and off through the fog to the rendezvous with one or more of the bad guys. Yes, I know this is confusing but half the fun of all this is not knowing who’s on which side and what their motives are. After all, when you’re observing the world through the eyes of a twelve-year-old cryptozoologist in the making, you can’t expect her to know everything (including how fog gets out of glass jars so quickly even though you put the lids on as fast as you can). So think of her as an unreliable narrator or as a reliable narrator in an unreliable world. In such a story, lacking one for a Blyton full house, we’re off to Morecambe Bay and nearby Lake Windermere (which has a big fan installed to keep the fog away).

 

As a novel, Zeuglodon fits into the same story cycle as The Digging Leviathan with a shared villain Hilario Frosticos, and we’re ultimately in ERB land. As a pair, it fits into a broader set of novels which are called the Narbondo series, featuring Ignatio Narbondo and Langdon St Ives in a steampunk version of history rewriting Victorian events for comic effect. The essence of these stories is that much of what Verne, ERB, Fort and others described is actually real and, using new technology, hero and villain fight over Earth’s future, even travelling through time when necessary. Because of its point of view, Zeuglodon is actually a rather ingenious way of adding to the mythology and showing a different view of how the Victorian inspired future is working out. It’s not quite as steampunkish as earlier books but compensates by trespassing into fantasy dreamscapes where the zeuglodon or basilosaurus might put in an appearance should you be able to penetrate through to the hollow Earth. James Blaylock has managed something rather clever, maintaining a childlike point of view which, by implication, deals with some rather adult issues about relationships and responsibilities, about the difference between the real and the places we see in our dreams, and whether it would ever be right to disturb the world’s understanding of itself by collecting evidence of a different reality.

 

For a review of another book by James P Blaylock, see The Aylesford Skull.

 

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

 

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

October 30, 2012 2 comments

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) face the Chinese army

 

We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.

Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) approach Chen village

 

So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.

Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his British master Peter Stormare

 

In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.

 

I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.

 

For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

October 9, 2012 5 comments

I’m pleased to be able to report Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (Harper Voyager, 2011) Volume 1 Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences a success. It manages to do something very difficult with considerable skill and a great sense of fun. For this review, I need to remind people that I was born not long after the last dinosaur perished — a great disappointment to me because my parents always spoke with a look of wonder in their eyes when describing T.Rex in their heyday. This venerable age means I have read literature over the centuries. I have followed the adventures of Greek heroes, felt the passion in the sagas describing Beowulf’s exploits, and so on. More recently, I’ve been in thrall to the adventure stories of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. There’s something simple and direct about their narrative drive. Although there are occasional references to the social context in which the adventures are taking place, they are kept to a minimum and not allowed to distract from getting on with the action. In more modern times, people have been playing with this older format in what’s called steampunk. This takes the broad sweep of adventure and enlivens it by introducing anachronistic machinery. So it is that our Victorian forebears secretly invented miraculous steam-driven technology and used clockwork in entirely unexpected ways. Except most of these exercises are po-faced and formulaic. Authors are lazy and throw in an airship or land leviathan for effect without thinking about how the culture would have to develop to produce such machines. They believe the essence of steampunk lies in trotting out the same tired old props and littering them through uninspiring plots in the hope of entertaining the mass market with their novelty. Except the results, for the most part, are boring.

This is a successful steampunk because the authors have taken the trouble to develop interesting characters and put them in a classic adventure with a credible social and political context. Britain was actually quite strongly influenced by anarchism from around 1880 to the start of World War I. Although the anarchists never managed to create a coherent political platform, they were contributing significantly to the discussion of the problems in Victorian society. Indeed, their contribution was, at times, highly original and difficult to ignore unlike the Socialists were were more passive and therefore more easily ignored. To get this period right, authors must therefore think about why access to education was limited, how the encouragement of autodidacticism relieved the problem, how Utopianism came to take root, where communal living became a practical way of life and how the status of women evolved.

Three’s a charm with Pip Ballantine and Tee Morrris

We start with our colonial heroine, Eliza Braun, using guns and lots of explosives to rescue a kidnapped archivist, Wellington Books, from the clutches of a secret organisation (it’s brave of the authors to change the idiom from “all brawn and no brains” to Braun and Books for this pairing). When they return to London, both are disconcerted by being paired together to run the Archives. This is not what a destruction-minded field agent expects but, as you would expect, it all turns out right because she stumbles across the cold files left by her old partner. Her enthusiasm jolts Welly out of his quiet routines and they are soon charging around London in pursuit of the Phoenix Society, a secret organisation that traces its roots back to Roman times. The modern version is, of course, out to bring down the current order for the benefit of all. Except, once you look behind the curtain and see how they actually behave, it leaves you wondering how the mass of people in London would benefit from their ministrations.

Our mismatched pair naturally find there’s more to each other than first meets the eye. The diffident archivist can actually defend himself and Eliza also proves more than a wrecking ball in motion. That’s as we would expect as all books of this type play with stereotypical expectations about the role of women and how straight-laced men should respond. It’s also amusingly obvious one half of the writing team was born in New Zealand and is therefore justifiably positive about the benefits of an upbringing in this remote outpost of the British Commonwealth. The author’s heritage also shows up in the syntax. In an American edition, it’s actually quite pleasing to see many British English spellings and sentence constructions. If it’s supposed to be a period British book, touches like this should be routine.

On balance, Phoenix Rising is a successful first outing and I hope to see more from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences — I’ve got The Janus Affair on order. It also confirms Pip or Philippa Ballantine as an author to watch. The same sense of humour is on display in this book and it makes the entire reading experience pure fun.

For reviews of books by Philippa Ballantine writing on her own, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings and
Wrayth.

Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

October 8, 2012 2 comments

Quite simply, Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero, 太極之從零開始 (2012) is exuberant fun from start to finish. To understand the approach taken by the director Stephen Fung and the screenwriter Kuo-fu Chen, you need to understand what can go wrong with a smörgåsbord. This is the Scandinavian approach to a buffet meal. When you enter the restaurant, you are confronted by multiple dishes. Done well, there’s a real synergy between all the different tastes and flavours. Done badly and, despite there being one or two dishes you find enjoyable, the entire experience is something of a disaster. The team behind this film have done their homework and noted all the different styles and techniques that can be put together in a film. When triggering a flashback, for example, they know they can change the aspect, shoot in black and white and use a shaky camera to suggest a home movie. Or they can more generally fade from a freeze frame into a pop-art image, use comic book animation, borrow the video-game need to keep fighting to get to the next level, and so on. When showing kung fu, they can use slow-motion and draw the flow of chi on the screen so we can all follow the logic of the moves and see their consequences. I could go on, but you get the idea. This film is literally a mosaic of different methods but, so elegantly have they been put together that the result rises above mere collage as a pasting of bits on the same screen. This is film-making art, blending the disparate elements into one of the best tai chi, kung fu films I’ve seen for a long time. Indeed, to complete the irreverence to traditional conceits, it’s directly metafictional in using the subtitles to introduce the different actors by their names and not their roles, and to mention odd facts about their real-world backgrounds.

Yuan Xiaochao getting the maximum leverage

 

So what about the plot? Well, the poster alleges this is steampunk but that’s not strictly true. Although the track-laying machine is an exaggeration of what even modern technology can achieve, all the basic machines on display are more or less in period. With the exception of the central machine, there’s nothing so completely anachronistic that it qualifies as steampunk. What we have is a very traditional kung fu film in which China’s culture is being subverted by evil Westerners. In this case, they want to build a railroad and, through local agents, are literally not going to let anything stand in their way. It’s a standard plot having been recycled through films like Tsui Hark’s great series Once Upon a Time in China (1991) which invites us to lament the end of an era in which tradition was made redundant by a different cultural approach supported by foreign technology. The trilogy shows the worst effects of colonialism and the cultural imperialism that accompanied it.

Angelababy prepared to take on all-comers

 

Hence, this film shows us an idyllic village where traditional values have been fiercely guarded for generations. After a long prologue in which we see the birth and training of our hero in the hard fighting styles, Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) arrives hoping to learn the soft style for which the village is famous. He has a serious medical problem and, if he persists in using the hard styles, he will kill himself. Unfortunately, the villagers have a strict policy not to teach outsiders. The village is therefore a metaphor for China, resisting outside influences and preserving the “old ways”. To prove the value of the old ways, the village is then subject to destabilising forces. Our hero will not take no for an answer and learns the core of the soft tai chi style by fighting the villagers and learning from what they do. This is not a theft of their knowledge. Rather it’s using the local strength against itself. If they did not fight him, he could not learn from them.

Tony Leung Ka Fai showing us the traditional way is best

 

The second challenge comes from within. Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) was a villager who went overseas and learned foreign ways. He returns to the village as an agent for the East India Company to persuade them to allow the railway to pass through. As a child, he was loved by Chen Yunia (Angelababy), but he’s now being backed by a British woman and her access to British technology. So this is a film about balance. Fang Zijing’s rejection must be set against Yang Lu Chan’s assimilation of the old ways. Similarly, the hard fighting styles will not work against armour-plating. You need the soft approach to slip inside its defences and then use the machine’s internal energy against it. The strategy comes from Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) who hopes to use the outsider Yang Lu Chan to defeat the British. That way, no-one will blame the village. Unfortunately, his daughter Chen Yunia joins in the fight directly, fueled by anger and jealousy for Fang Zijing. This leads to a direct attack in retaliation and gives us a chance to see Master Chen in action.

Eddie Peng cultural traitor taking on British ways

 

I accept Tai Chi Zero may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s a halfway house between the traditional Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) style and the more Western comic-book fantasies like Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010). The fighting choreographed by Sammo Hung is terrific, helped by the casting of Yuan Xiaochao, a former Wushu world champion. So, putting all this together, I left the cinema with a big smile on my face, looking forward to the second half which is due later this year. Yes, Stephen Fung filmed the two halves back-to-back and, if the clips are anything to go by, this may actually be more steampunkish with airpower adding to large cannons arriving by sea. Obviously, Western strategists recognise you can always defeat hand-to-hand prowess by aerial bombing and artillery fire from a distance.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

 

Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press, 2010) represents the second volume in The Clockwork Century following on from Boneshaker. This is what one can only describe as a real rip-roaring adventure novel. It takes everything that was wonderful about the “Boys’ Own” school of writing, filters it through what we now call steampunk, and emerges with a genuinely exciting chase across an alternate history version of America as it experiences a different version of the Civil War. This time, our heroine is Maria Isabella Boyd. She’s a devastating combination of Mata Hari and Annie Oakley. Initially employed by the Confederacy as a spy, she finds herself a little too well-known and so out of work. After a short period on the stage, she’s recruited by Pinkerton and immediately despatched to ensure a cargo being carried by the airship Clementine, gets where it’s supposed to be going without any major mishap befalling it.

 

The potential mishap’s name is Captain Croggon Hainey. He was the proud captain of the Free Crow — a ship he’d stolen fair and square and, after considerable modification, had run on the free enterprise market with considerable success. Unfortunately, he’s become the victim of a theft. His beautiful ship has been appropriated and is now renamed Clementine. It’s sailing off to the other side of the country with Hainey in hot pursuit. So there we have the plot. Our outraged and implacable Captain in pursuit of his purloined ship must be forestalled by a gun-toting ex-spy masquerading as a private detective. Except it proves not quite so simple for either party. You see, despite being let go by the South, our heroine still has some loyalties to the cause. When she discovers the Clementine is being used to transport the final part of a new secret weapon which, when completed, will enable the Yankees to literally wipe Southern cities off the map, an alliance with Captain Hainey may be the best way of preventing military disaster. Against this must be balanced the reality that, if she survives, it will undoubtedly mean she loses her new job with Pinkerton’s. Forming this alliance and maintaining the relevant degree of mutual trust represents the major dynamic of the second half of the book as both individuals discuss options and convince each other of their honorable intentions.

Cherie Priest acting as lagging for some Victorian pipes

 

On the way, we meet up with Edwin and Dr Archibald Smeeks from “Tanglefoot” a short story published online by Subterranean Press, and develop a clear understanding of why “Belle” Boyd has managed to build up such a reputation for competence. All this is carried off with the minimum of fuss and bother. Crossing over the finishing line in a 200-page sprint, this book demonstrates the virtue in economy. Far too many books today are bloated with excess baggage that does little more than slow down the action and tire the wrists of older readers like myself with the additional weight. This tells us only what we need to know to get the story going and then keeps things very simple in the telling. It happily transports me back in time to my youth when the standard length of a book was 192 pages (for those of you who are technically minded, that’s six gathers). So, airships filled with hydrogen are the main focus of our attention. This means everyone must move very cautiously. From our own world’s experience, we remember the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 when the German passenger airship caught fire and was destroyed in New Jersey. Now imagine similar designs used for military transport and commercial purposes (including piracy). These are not machines one should treat with any lack of respect. It’s therefore interesting to watch the careful thought invested in the tactics of how to fly and, if necessary, fight in these death traps. Cherie Priest has done a good job with just a few brushstrokes, to create the necessary sense of dread in all who sail in these ships and who work from the ground in offering refuelling and maintenance facilities. Taken overall, Clementine is great fun and, despite the public’s appreciation of Boneshaker, a less pretentious and more enjoyable read.

 

The jacket artwork from Jon Foster is pleasingly muted.

 

For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Boneshaker
Clementine
Dreadnought
Fathom
Fiddlehead
Ganymede
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
The Inexplicables
Those Who Went Remain There Still

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