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Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges by Caitlin R Kiernan

Blood Oranges is by Caitlin R Kiernan writing as Kathleen Tierney. Pausing there for a moment, you may wonder why Ms Kiernan should chose to publish the first in a new trilogy using the device of a disclosed pseudonym. The answer is she intends this project to be sufficiently different to the usual run of material that it must be presented to the world “differently”. So unlike the first Barbara Vine book which did not announce Ruth Rendell as the author on the jacket, this book uses both the author’s name and the pseudonym on the jacket. That way, random potential buyers are told it’s a Kiernan book but “different”. So those of you who enjoyed The Drowning Girl and are waiting for the next of Kiernan’s “real” books, can kill time by reading this trilogy by “Kathleen Tierney” which is “different”. My apologies for the repetitiveness of the explanation.

So exactly how is this book “different”? Well, you may think you know what urban fantasy or paranormal romance is, i.e. a largely anaemic, usually chaste, ramble round the supernatural sandbox with a female protagonist in danger but pulling through bravely and, depending on the publisher, sometimes bedding the romantic interest. But this book takes the anodyne formula and tramples all over it. I suppose the classification of the result depends on your own definitions. Some might call it a pastiche, others a parody or even satire. After a few drinks in a bar, its true nature as a general exercise in “taking the piss” would probably get the vote of approval (a British idiom meaning to ridicule or mock). As is required, we’ve got a woman as our protagonist. Except Siobhan Quinn is our unreliable narrator du jour. She’s an addict and all addicts lie about everything, including their addiction. Better still, she’s earned a reputation as a a killer of supernatural nasties except, in the classic tradition of a true klutz, the various nasties meeting their doom variously slipped or fell over with fatal consequences. It’s ever thus that legends are born. So, ironically, if she’s to live up to her own reputation, she’s actually got to learn how to kill something intentionally. Believe me when I tell you she’s not the fastest learner on the planet. As an example, take her approach to tracking down a werewolf. She goes into his kill zone and then shoot up with heroine. I mean, is she a fuck-up or what?

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

Caitlin R Kiernan pretending to be Kathleen Tierney

So here we go with a first-person narrative and metafictional commentary with the author cracking jokes to the reader: no really, I’m not making it up. I’m not the one being paid to make up shit like this, OK. It’s the author who’s playing with your head and generally pointing out the many absurdities in the subgenre out of which she’s taking the piss. But if that’s all the book was about, the joke would wear thin very rapidly. This forces the author to write a conventional story about a female Buffy-type screw-up who sequentially gets bitten by a werewolf and then bitten by a vampire. This makes her a werepire or vampwolf depending on your colloquial preferences. Now armed with a voracious appetite for human blood and an alarming tendency to turn into a wolf when she gets excited, she carves a dangerous furrow through Providence, doing slightly more than chewing on the furniture until she gets to the end of her adventure. Alarmingly, she fails to mate with anyone or thing during the contemporaneous action thereby holding true to the usual requirement for a chaste romance. This is probably due to her uncontrollable desire to exsanguinate or simply eat anyone or thing she encounters. The only one even vaguely approximating a mentor or sidekick spends most of the book hiding from her lest he too gets sucked into the action in the more fatal sense of the words. He’s very prudent.

Taken overall, I think the book a success in both its aims. As a narrative in the fantasy mould with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, trolls, and so on, it satisfies all the basic requirement for adventure. As unreliable narrators go, Siobhan Quinn also proves credible. Although she starts off incredibly dim, you always feel there’s enough native wit inside that not so pretty head to enable her to join up all the dots to work out who’s pulling the strings. If I have a problem with the book, it’s in the second element of piss-taking which may go on slightly too long. There are some genuinely amusing monologuing debates about how characters are expected to act in books of this type. Indeed, I can understand why it’s taking so long to write the sequel. I think Ms Kiernan may have discovered she rather shot her bolt with Blood Oranges. Without repeating herself, it’s damn difficult to write two more in the same vein. The sequel, after some toing and froing, is called Red Delicious. I’m hopeful it will be worth reading.

For a review of other books by Caitlin R Kiernan, see Confessions of a Five Chambered Heart and The Ape’s Wife.

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

Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson

Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson

In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.

So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.

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

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong

March 25, 2013 2 comments

Forbidden by Kelly Armstrong

Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press, 2012) is another story featuring Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers in the continuing saga of the Women of the Otherworld. In the moment I write these sentences so full of certainty, it’s easy to forget this is my first look at this author and the only reason I’m able to appear so knowledgeable is because I’ve browsed her website and read the Wikipedia entry. I wish I’d done so before agreeing to review this book. I get lazy, assuming Subterranean Press does not publish Young Adult content. Most of the time, I filter out the fiction aimed at those barely able to read and whose sensibilities are so far removed from my senior years. But, yet again, another teen bestselling author has penetrated my defences so I must grit my teeth and offer my opinion (as if it’s not immediately obvious from these opening words).

The problems for me are many and manifold. I suppose they begin with my general lack of respect for the young. It’s not simply that they are inexperienced. That goes without saying and no generation springs from a god’s head fully formed and able to act like adults from drawing their first breaths. But the present young are so alien to me, they might just as well have been born on a different planet. Sadly, this is reflected in the books intended for them to read. When I was growing up, there were books for children, books written for adults but considered suitable for children to read, and then the books we waited to read. Frankly, what’s now marketed as YA fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. Just as the tests and examinations young students take today are significantly easier than those I had to take, so their fiction is emasculated fiction that patronising adult editors consider it appropriate to give the tender young minds to read. If these books represent what teens are genuinely interested in, I have little faith in the future of the human race. Indeed, I note a great irony. In many serious commentaries and newspapers, I see handwringing pieces bewailing the loss of childhood. It seems our young tots are turning into adults before their time. Well these books tell a very different story. They are beyond innocent, inhabiting some weird world of fantasy make-believe in which life can always become beautiful and fulfilling. Although some authors do use darker thematic material, it’s usually in an educational spirit, to suggest ways in which horrors can be mitigated and life made more bearable again.

Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong

So here we have our young adult protagonists. Elena is getting a little long in the tooth for this role but the loyal fans have been following her for many years. She’s now the proud mother of two children but, on this winter’s night, she gets a telephone call which brings her to a small town called Westwood where a young man called Morgan Walsh has been locked up in jail and could do with a little help. She therefore puts down the mantle of motherdom and takes up her role of Alpha of the Pack. She and Clayton, her bodyguard, set off on an adventure with a limited number of characters and no more than 250 pages in which to reach a positive resolution. Well, this is a YA adventure with werewolves as the central characters. This could be scary, if not gory, but we start off with scenes of domestic tranquility. Having seen our central character being all maternal, this is not going to suddenly morph into a book in which she goes to Westwood and, at the first opportunity, takes hold of the throat of a human. “With her teeth sliding into the yielding flesh of her victim’s neck, she rips out a chunk of flesh. Arterial blood from his torn carotid pumps over her muzzle, whetting her appetite. With a casual surge of strength, she hoists him into the air and leans forward to breakfast on the low-hanging nuts.” No, we’re never going to get anything along those lines in a book like this.

Instead, no-one plays nice. Person or persons unknown rip the tyres of their vehicle stranding them in this hick backwater and then exciting stuff happens. At least this is what’s supposed to be exciting to one of today’s teens. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but dutifully read it to the end to see precisely what was forbidden. Was it a major Satanic ritual calling up demons that would fight our werewolves tooth and claw? Or perhaps it was handbags at dawn with the zombie cheerleaders from the local high school? Well, if you’re a fan, you’ve no doubt already added this book to your collection and know the answer. If you’re not a fan but are a young adult as defined by modern marketers, you may find Forbidden exciting. If you’re a curmudgeonly senior like me, death would be preferable to having to read another book by this author.

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

Underworld: Awakening (2012)

Underworld-Awakening-2012

Underworld: Awakening (2012) is the fourth in the series and a sequel to the second film. For those of you who like to keep things in order, the third film was a prequel. You should understand it’s not really necessary to watch these films in order. They exist and share a historical context for the continuing feud between vampires and werewolves. Three of them have the same lead character. But they have minimal plot continuity.

 

OK, where are we with this latest exciting episode? As always, you can rely on humans to completely overreact when they discover supernatural beasties are real. I suppose, to those in power, the idea that vampires have been living among us for centuries might not be such a hard sell since both groups feed off the uncaring masses. But, as is required, we now go in for a shock and awe campaign to eradicate both the vampires and the werewolves. Martial law is declared. Repression is put in place. After all, the politicians must get fringe benefits if they are to take out their competitors. Let the mass cleansing begin as all who fail the tests are executed on the spot. Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman) attempt to escape the purge but Michael is “lost” and Selene is captured.

Kate Beckinsale wearing the trademark leathers

Kate Beckinsale wearing the trademark leathers

 

Twelve years later, our heroine awakes in a cryosuspension chamber in a lab run by Dr Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea). It’s always impressive to see how quickly supernatural beings recover from being frozen. One minute they lie naked on the floor to give all the voyeurs an early taste. The next minute they are dressed in the leather gear so helpfully left to hand and they are running and jumping (and killing) as if nothing had happened. Then, after a quick snack, it’s into the streets for a quick memory recovery exercise and reorientation on current market trends for vampire teeth. Needless to say, after fighting off a few remnant werewolves and meeting up with David (Theo James), another vampire, Selene is reunited with Eve (India Eisley), the daughter she never knew she had. It’s a touching moment since it turns out the girl released the mother from the lab. Slightly later, there’s a nice line to explain why Selene does not immediately go all motherly, “My heart is not cold. It’s broken” by the news of Michael’s death. Then it’s underground (good to see Charles Dance again). Can she rally the remaining vampires to defend themselves rather than merely hide away? Meanwhile Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) is called to the lab from which our heroine (and her daughter) escaped. He knows immediately that Dr Lane is lying but he does not know why. When he meets up with our heroine, they conclude a faction in the government is protecting the werewolves and planning to harvest immunity to silver from Eve. Oh what a surprise, Dr Lane is the key player and his son is the first superwolf. And then the alarm went off and I woke up.

India Eisley not having a good day

India Eisley not having a good day

 

The question you always have ask when you watch films like this is whether the eighty-eight minutes running time is filled with sufficient content to entertain. This has everything you would expect. Vampires get to jump around like they escaped from the set of the Matrix. If you’re lucky they bite a few people to boost their strength and/or to heal more quickly Werethingies transform into ever bigger and badder doggies. They may not be endowed with the same brain power as the vamps, but they make up for it in brute strength. To this mix is added the new mother/daughter dynamic, the missing daddy and a policeman with vampire sympathies (but not Renfield tendencies) for additional emotional heft. No-one who pays to see this type of film expects anything subtle and, in this case, they won’t be disappointed. The plot moves along briskly and, for the most part makes sense. I suppose we shouldn’t think about how far up the government hierarchy the conspiracy goes. Underworld: Awakening is a film you admire for its technical proficiency. The effects are good. There’s an inexhaustible supply of bullets for Kate Beckinsale to fire plus the chance to let off a few grenades and generally blow stuff up. But there’s no emotional connection. You watch it. It ends. You wonder what to see next.

 

The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012)

September 12, 2012 4 comments

No matter what the medium, there are some themes that can be consistently satisfying in emotional terms when there’s a successful outcome. Perhaps the most enduring is the struggles of single mothers to bring up their children. Long before we moved into the modern era of dysfunctional families and the more obvious habit of fathers to reject any obligation in the task of helping to care for their children, a combination of accidents, diseases and wars whittled down the male population. For better or worse, men have been the hunter-gatherer figures, whether in the literal sense or as the primary wage earners. While the patriarchal assumption has seen the woman’s role as staying at home to care for the children. In The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki or Okami kodomo no ame to yuki (2012), a Japanese film probably closer to the conventions of anime rather than Western animation, the father dies in a hunting accident — drowned in a flash flood. Even under normal circumstances this would be a traumatic event and leave the mother of two very young children in a desperate situation. But this is not a normal family.

Mother and her children enjoy the moment

The theme of this story of hope is that people only achieve any peace in their lives when they are true to themselves. I suppose the real life issues coming closest to this are those individuals who have a nonstandard sexuality. This may be people unable to decide whether they are homosexual or those who have gender identity problems. Does that person risk everything from the outset and warn the prospective partner before the relationship is perfected? This may bring the romance to a shuddering halt or it can lead to a more complete acceptance of identity between the two parties. Their mutual honesty makes the bond stronger. In this fantasy, the man admits he’s what we Westerners would term a werewolf. In this case, he has the transformation under control, moving freely from human to wolf as he chooses. Since she loves the “person” no matter which body he happens to be wearing, their love is confirmed and, in due course, she gives birth to two children. Since they do not know whether the children will be born human or wolf, these are home births and no official notification is given to the usual children’s services. Paediatric and other facilities offering support to families would be alarmed if the babies randomly transformed from human to wolf (and back). So everything must be done in their small apartment. When he dies, she’s increasingly threatened, first by neighbours and then by child welfare officers who believe she must be abusing the children known to be there. In desperation, she moves out of the city into the mountains where she finds a run-down home in a remote village for a nominal rent. Now she must live a frugal life on her meagre savings, eking out the money until the crops she plants in the fallow fields around her can offer an independent source of food.

Yuri delighting in her love of the natural world

Except, of course, she has no idea how to be a subsistence farmer and reading books is of little help in developing the necessary practical skills. Fortunately, her determination wins over the locals and they rally round to help. Lurking in the undergrowth, the daughter Yuki is fearless, shifting rapidly between human and wolf as she makes the area her home. This has the inadvertent advantage of frightening the wild boar away. They routinely damage the crops in the adjacent fields but are deterred by the territorial markings left by Yuki’s urine. The younger son Ame is desperately introverted and initially resists the “call of the wild”. Although he too transforms, he never seems comfortable in either role. But when Yuki goes to school, she discovers the human world and decides she’d like to fit in. This works very well at first but, as is always the case when she grows a little older, her self-control is shattered by the arrival of a new boy in the school. Pubertal stirrings in a moment of early sexual tension lead to an involuntary revelation. Fortunately, the boy’s first accusations are ridiculed and the incident passes. Ame is bullied in school and increasingly opts out. This leads to the first and only fight between the children as wolves. She wants him to commit to school and the human world. He refuses.

Ame is more hesitant in his different roles

This is another film by Mamoru Hosoda who directed the wonderful The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006). It’s produced by Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV) and Madhouse Studios. In terms of the characters, the style is very much anime but many of the detailed shots of flowers and landscapes are quite remarkably realistic and, to that extent, equal some of the work from Western animators. The initially idyllic mountain scenery matches the bright optimism of the family. Only later does the forested landscape take on a more threatening quality. In animation terms, there are some moments of quite stunning beauty and emotional intensity. As an example, watch for the moment when the wind blows the gauze curtaining around Yuri near the end.

Yet for all this implicit praise, there’s a problem. The first half of the film is clearly the mother’s story as we watch her struggle. It also ends with the mother as she finally comes to terms with the practical reality — the recognition that, at some point, a mother can no longer protect her children. They will grow into their new identities and her role as a mother necessitates acceptance. Nurture can only go so far. In the end, nature prevails. This focus is reinforced by the voiceover which is provided by an older Yuri looking back at her childhood. So when the central section of the film pivots to follow the children as they go to school, the story arc involving the supportive local community disappears. The mother finds herself a job and her character is marginalised until the inevitable climax at the end. Although this shift in point of view is to some extent inevitable, it dilutes the emotional impact of the mother’s story and fails to allocate enough time to the film as a coming-of-age story that can really engage our emotions. That said, this is one of the best anime or animated films I’ve seen for a long time. It makes the best of the West seem facile and trivial. You should go out of your way to see this rather than queue up at the local cinema to watch something like Brave.

The other two anime films directed by Mamoru Hosoda are:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2006)
Summer Wars or Samā Wōzu or サマーウォーズ (2009)

Fenrir by M D Lachlan

This is a very interesting alternate history in which the world has seen the physical and cultural dominance of the Norsemen spreading throughout Europe and into Russia during the interregnum between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of a more stable set of nations spreading from the West to the East of the continent. In this time of chaos, there’s a balance to be struck between all the different groups and tribes, with merchants and mercenaries able to respond to the general laws of supply and demand. To some extent, this produces early signs of forces that will eventually move these smaller groups to merge into larger entities. But, for now, there are fragile alliances based on self-interest. A slightly different factor is the role of the various faiths. From the North come the old Gods like Odin. From the South comes early Christianity which is looking to convert the heathen tribes into the new religion. Complicating this is the reality of magic which destabilises the process of conversion. Given that faith relies on belief where there’s no evidence, it’s difficult to hold converts to Christianity when there are practical demonstrations that magic based on the old Gods produces results. To highlight the tension, one of the early figures we meet in Fenrir by M D Lachlan (pseudonym of Mark Barrowcliffe) (PYR, 2011) is Jehan the Confessor, a monk who’s been blinded by his vision of the Virgin Mary but granted the power of prophesy. If the old religion has magic, this can be matched by a living Saint — assuming it was the Virgin Mary he saw, of course.

As a sequel to Wolfsangel, we’re therefore into two interacting but different levels of storytelling. At a metaphorical level, this is a story about faith. In part, this is played out in the evolution of Jehan. His body has been physically broken by his exposure to divinity but, with an admirable stoicism, he gives up his pain and suffering to God and represents an inspiration to all around him. How ironic it therefore becomes when he finds that, perhaps, the effects of his encounter with the supernatural being was rather more transformative than he could have realised. Indeed, it’s only when he comes under direct pressure of circumstances, that he’s forced to confront the reality that he can become something more despite his apparent physical disability. What then is he to make of his faith in a Christian God?

M. D. Lachlan (aka Mark Barrowcliffe) crumpled and tousled as the new chic

Competing for our attention is the second mythological thread in which Lachlan is playing with the potential arrival of Ragnarök. This requires Fenrisulfr, the wolf, to kill Odin and bring on either The Twilight or The Doom of the Gods depending on which version of the myths you want to take. As you can imagine, this explores major themes of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. This book also offers the further possibilities that the wolf might be killed or, through killing Odin, enables the God to be reborn. In Wolfsangel, we were presented with an unusual love triangle that was taken up by the old Gods for their sport. As a demonstration of their power, the lovers are now reincarnated and, depending on your point of view, either destined or doomed to meet again in each new life. To make the game more “interesting” to the Gods, none of the newly reborn remember their past lives. Think of this as a scientific experiment to determine whether people are drawn to each other based on their “souls” or some other intangible link that transcends time. This means we must meet Aelis. Her brother is attempting to defend Paris from the invading Norsemen except this is not a traditional assault with rape and pillage on their minds. They have actually come for Aelis and faithfully swear they will leave if she’s handed over to them. Also arriving in the vicinity is Leshii, a merchant sent by Prince Helgi to guide a man he calls Chakhlyk to Paris. After a number of intense skirmishes, we have Aelis and Leshii set upon the road back to the court of Prince Helgi, while a newly revitalised Jehan leads a small group of Norsemen east towards a distant monastery. Also actively participating are two characters representing a physical incarnation of Odin’s ravens. They are Hugin and Munin who, in the myths, represent “thought” and “memory”. Their role is as a balancing faction. If Aelis may kill the wolf and so “save” Odin, one faction might want her to succeed, the other to fail. Obviously, it may always come to the same thing because if the wolf dies, Odin survives. If Odin is reincarnated following his death in the jaws of the wolf, he continues in his reign, i.e. Odin and Loki may have set up this human game to watch as our humans die and are reincarnated so they can learn more about this process for passing through time.

This is not a book for everyone. A lot of blood is spilt and there’s a rather grim feel to the whole enterprise. Unless you can comfortably absorb descriptions of death on a semi-industrial scale, you should give this a miss. I also felt the exploration of the morality involved was a bit heavy-going. I don’t mind absorbing interesting debates as engaging characters get involved in challenging situations. But these characters are actually rather flat. To some extent, their roles are predetermined by their identities in past lives. Just as people loved before, so they must love again, or at least explore that possibility with each other. Yes, this has moved on to a broader canvas because Wolfsangel was exclusively Norse, whereas this has a more positive Christian element to balance out the mythology. But it remains a little mechanical as they move around this version of Europe like pawns on a God’s chess board. So, there’s plenty of blood-thirsty action and some interesting ideas here. Your choice as to whether to give Fenrir a try.

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

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