The Last Stratiote, by LeAnn Neal Reilly

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“Sharp scent of hot blood
blooms beneath darkening skies.
Justice rends March night.” –Elira Dukagjini

Full disclosure: The author offered me an advance review copy of this novel, with no conditions on how I reviewed it.

laststratioteStratiote is simply the Greek word for soldier; but it was a term particularly applied, in the 1400s and 1500s, to Greek and Albanian mercenaries who fled from their homelands to escape Turkish invaders and hired out to fight, first against the Turks for the Venetians and later in other European wars as well. So the title might suggest a historical novel; but our setting is actually mostly in contemporary Boston (which has an Albanian immigrant community). Its roots, though, lie in the small country of Albania (and neighboring Kosovo), the poorest and least modernized part of the poor and not-very-modern Balkans.

Our titular “last stratiote” is Elira Dukagjini (a.k.a. a “certified Albanian whack job”). Born and bred in a part of the world that’s been a seething cauldron of religious and ethnic hatreds for centuries, that aspect of her heritage is very prominent in her attitudes. Her little sister and two cousins were lost to her when they were kidnapped into sex slavery, and she herself was the victim of a brutal gang rape that left her female organs too damaged to bear children. Not being of a gentle or forgiving disposition, she’s channeled her rage and vengefulness into becoming, among other things, a vigilante on a blood vendetta against sex traffickers.

This brings her into contact with our other two main characters, symbolically-named James Goodman, an ICE agent (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the branch of Homeland Security which is in charge of combating sex trafficking), and Mirjeta, the woman he loves, who fled the horrors of her Albanian homeland as a teen, but who, as the book opens, has been snatched by those who would drag her back there. The complex relationship that develops between these three characters is at the heart of the book, but they’re well-supported by a full cast of strongly-drawn characters. (In particular, you gotta love Zophie!)

Given that action-heroine types often function in and are shaped by a rough milieu, they’re often rough-edged. But Elira vastly pushes the envelope on the “rough” idea; if characters like Red Sonya or Jirel of Joiry are likened to a Brillo pad, she’s an industrial-strength metal sander. She’s not simply tough, hard-drinking, and sometimes potty-mouthed; she’s also bisexual, very promiscuous, a cocaine addict (yes, so was Sherlock Holmes, whom I like, but he didn’t have access to modern knowledge of how harmful drugs like this are; Elira does), and capable of dishing out mayhem that causes trained cops to vomit. Hanging out with her, as a reader, yanked me WAY out of my comfort zone.

But by following the Muse to create this character and let her be who she is, Reilly helps us to learn to empathize rather than judge; and I did come to empathize. Elira isn’t essentially evil (though sex traffickers unlucky enough to meet her might think that she is, before they died!), and underneath the grunge and capacity for savagery, she’s a hurting woman to whom the world hasn’t been very kind. Like all of us, she’s on her own unique journey; and by the end of the book, she’s a lady I honestly liked, respected, and straight-out admired. If you read the book, you’ll find out why; and you might feel the same way. You’ll for sure never forget her!

This novel has a lot going for it. Reilly’s writing skills are top-notch; she handles language very well in bringing out the exact effects that she wants, and she knows the perfect way to handle scenes that in lesser hands could be a challenge. She’s done her homework very well, even to the point of being able to write dialogue in Albanian (with English translations), and she knows her Albanian history and geography, etc., even to the point of identifying the tribal groups (Elira and Mirjeta are Ghegs, the main group in the north, as the Tosks are in the south). Her wide reading allows her to enrich the book with literary allusions; Elira’s quite a fan of Shakespeare, among other things, and enjoys composing haiku poetry. (And I’m anxious to find the translation of the Scots dialect in the Robert Burns quote!). There are also quite a few contemporary pop culture references, but they’re not just thrown in as a cheap way of faking texture; they’re actually used to make points in discussion. And there’s really powerful, creative and effective use made here of symbolism, and a unique take on the vampire mythos.

This isn’t solely a novel of action and intrigue. James Goodman was a philosophy student, and there are some major philosophical/theological discussions here that touch on issues naturally suggested by the story. What moral claim does the idea of “Blood Law,” the need for blood vengeance in kind for genuine wrongs, have on us? How far does it go, and what effect does it have on the avenger? What place does forgiveness have –and does it demand pacifism in the face of aggressive evil? And what does the Roman Catholic spirituality that Elira was raised with have to contribute to those questions? There are Moslem villains here who are engaged in really vile deeds; does that mean we’re justified (as the author’s fictional Code Red hate group claims) in hateful words and actions towards all Moslems?

Of course, would-be guru Jacob Stryver here isn’t the most lucid or reliable philosophical guide –and isn’t meant to be! That can mean that some of Goodman’s discussions with him aren’t always 100% easy to interpret. But other than that, most of the few negative points I saw in the book are very minor quibbles. Some plot points I thought weren’t completely smooth; but in the main, Reilly crafts her plot very well, with pieces of it coming together like a jigsaw right up to the end. And a real page-turner it is!

Note: The f-word appears here at times, along with some other profane and scatological bad language. There are a couple of short sex scenes that may be more explicit than some readers prefer, and an instance of implied female-female oral sex, in a quasi-public place, that a male character stumbles on and watches for several minutes feeling titillated. However, the author doesn’t attempt to titillate the reader, and none of this content is there for its own sake or for shock value.

Author: LeAnn Neal Reilly
Publisher: Zephon Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Deaf Mute Heroine

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“Silent but deadly.”

deafmuteheroineThe physically disabled hero has long been a staple of martial arts, to the extent that is is sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as “cripsploitation”. The One-armed Boxer, The Crippled Masters, Zatoichi – it’s a genre that survives more recently than you may think, with Mat Fraser, recently seen in American Horror Story: Freak Show, starring in 2009’s Kung Fu Flid. While this is rarer for heroines, they are not immune, with Japan giving us the Crimson Bat series, reviewed elsewhere on this site. This is another entry, Wong playing the titular heroine, Ya Ba, who is unable to speak or hear, but can still fight a mean battle, assisted by reflective wristbands that let her see who’s sneaking up from behind, in lieu of hearing them.

She comes into possession of a set of pearls, taking them off some robbers with extreme prejudice. However, this brings down the wrath of Miss Liu (Huang), leader of her own gang, and whose brother was one of the robbers. While her first attempt to kill Ya is unsuccessful, Lui’s poisoned flying daggers do injure her. Ya is found and nursed back to health by kindly cloth-dyer Yang Shun (Ching); romance blossoms, and the pair marry, with Ya figuratively hanging up her wristbands;  she actually puts them away in a box. That’s relevant, because her husband ends up entrapped into responsibility for a friend’s gambling debt by Liu, and she demands he steal Ya’s wristbands as payback. That opens the way for Liu and about five billion henchmen (count may be approximate) to launch their attack. But that’s not the only threat she faces, since lurking in the wings is another talented master, with a previously relationship to Ya and who was left with a nasty facial scar for his pains.

The fights are good. Really good. As in, the final battle between Ya and Lui (below) may be the best of the era I’ve seen between two women – like most of the action here, it’s fast, hard-hitting and imaginative, weakened only by some unsubtle wirework. The film is also bloodily messy, to a somewhat surprising extent, and both Wong and Huang make for highly-effective characters, the latter making up for the former’s silence.  However, the movie grinds to a halt in the middle, as the focus shifts off Ya to her husband, who is both a great deal less interesting and almost unlikeable. The film is also hampered by poor availability: while the version I watched was as close to complete as possible, that required a combination from three different sources, including one print dubbed into German(!) and another which was sub-VHS quality with a large logo in one corner. That helps leave this short of getting our “seal of approval,” but if a good copy ever becomes available, we might re-visit it. For as I said to Chris, what’s not to love about a wife who never says a word?

Y’know, our couch really isn’t so bad, when you get used to it. :)

Dir: Wu Ma
Star: Sally Wong (a.k.a. Helen Ma), Shirley Huang, Ching Tang, Wu Ma

The Mini-skirt Mob

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“Hell hath no fury like a blonde scorned.”

miniskirtIt’s not much of a stretch to imagine this coming out of Japan, as an early ancestor of the pinky violence genre. Though that would probably require the additional of significantly more nudity, since it proves surprisingly coy on that front, without a nipple to be found. The central character is Jeff (Hagen), a rodeo star who has just married Connie (Jackson). This does not sit well with his old flame, Shayne (McBain), who heads an all-girl gang, The Mini-skirts. Together with a group of male bikers (who include cult legend, Harry Dean Stanton), they harass the newlyweds, on and off the road, until a tragic accident leads to the death of one of the bikers. Then, the gloves come off, with Jeff and Connie besieged in their caravan by Shayne and her crew. However, they find an unlikely ally in Shayne’s sister, Edie (McCormack, who had previously been nominated for an Oscar as the tiny psychopath in The Bad Seed). While she stepped aside from Jeff when Shayne decided she was interested, Shayne is now sniffing around Edie’s current man, Lon (Jeremy Slate) and Edie has no interest in stepping aside again.

It’s an interesting set of power dynamics here: Shayne is the one who runs things here, manipulating others – Lon in particular – to do her bidding without the slightest qualm. For instance, after Lon has brawled with Jeff to the point where the latter has pulled a rifle on the gang, as far as Lon is concerned, that’s the end of the matter. But Shayne casts aspersions on his manhood, basically goading him into further action. She has also the whip-hand in her relationship with Edie, who is initially happy to follow along, clinging to her big sis’s coat-tails, until the scales fall from her eyes and she realizes how far Shayne is prepared to go in her quest for vengeance against the man who has – oh, the horror! – found love in the arms of another woman, Or, as Shayne puts it, “You need a real woman, Jeff – not a mouse.” Rodents are something of a running theme, it appears: she also tells a touching story of a visit to a zoo with Jeff, where she watched a snake hunt and swallow alive a mouse. Who said romance was dead?

It’s Jackson, using so much hair-spray she doesn’t need a motorcycle helmet, who keeps this watchable – even when the biking scenes, juvenile delinquent hi-jinks and Budweiser product placement begin to wear thin, and that doesn’t take very long. However, the siege of the caravan racks up the tension, and brings an unexpected and quite nasty death, albeit one clearly accomplished through thoroughly unconvincing stunt-doubling. That, and a finale where Connie shows an equally unexpected streak of malice, left me suitably entertained, though it would certainly be a stretch to call this anything more than throw-away drive-in fodder.

Dir: Maury Dexter
Star: Diane McBain, Ross Hagen, Sherry Jackson, Patty McCormack

They Call Me Macho Woman!

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“A B-movie, and entirely unashamed of it.”

macho womanLurking behind what has surely to be one of the worst titles in cinema history (truly a Troma creation), to my surprise, this is actually a solid enough little low-budget flick – albeit one that is straightforward to the point of idiocy. Widow Susan Morris (Sweeney – blonde, so definitely not the woman on the cover!) is out in the wilds. looking for a house where she can get away from it all. Unfortunately, she crosses paths with the monstrous Mongo (Oldfield, who reminds me of someone, but I can’t work out who) and his gang of drug-peddlers, and they do not take kindly to the interruption. It isn’t long before Susan has to find herself a new realtor. And that’s the least of her worries, as she finds herself perpetually in peril from the gang, who have every intent of raping and then killing her. Or maybe killing her, then raping her. They don’t seem too fussy about that. But everybody has their breaking point, and when they push Susan too far, she snaps, and takes the fight to her attackers.

Yes, it’s dumb. Yes, it’s cheap. Yes, it makes little or no sense, in particular her sudden transformation from plucky but largely ineffective heroine [who can’t even stab someone in a way that causes them more than moderate discomfort] into a warrior woman, capable of embedding a shiny axe in your head from 15 paces. But, you know what? It’s never boring, and I’ve sat through more than my fair share of low-budget crap that figures talk is cheap – so we’ll pad things out with lots and lots of that, before getting to anything approaching the meaty stuff. No such bait and switch here. We open with Mongo demonstrating his favourite weapon, a headpiece with a spike attached, which makes him look like a disgruntled unicorn, and after little more than five minutes of backstory involving Susan chatting to the real-estate agent, things kick off. And once they do, they don’t stop kicking until the final credits roll after 81 briskly entertaining minutes, as she is harried from one peril to the next, with laudable diligence (if variable competence) by Mongo and his henchmen.

Few involved here show any degree of acting talent, yet this shortcoming doesn’t matter very much, since we’re dealing with broad caricatures – let’s face it, subtlety would be a waste of time. There are some ludicrous mis-steps, such as the sequence where Susan escapes by running over the heads of the gang, which appears to have strayed in from a Jet Li movie. In what world does this even make sense? It could also have done with ramping up the exploitation elements considerably: much of the violence is implied (though the guy getting impaled on a nail was nicely done) and there’s no nudity. If talk is cheap, breasts are almost as inexpensive, and much more appreciated. It would also have helped if the stuntman used to stand-in for Sweaney, had been given a wig that matched her hair: hers is wavy, his is curly, and the difference is obvious. Yet I can’t bring myself to hate this, despite its obvious flaws. I was satisfactorily entertained, even without the use of alcohol.

Dir: Patrick G. Donahue
Star: Debra Sweaney, Brian Oldfield, Sean P. Donahue, Mike Donahue
a.k.a. Savage Instinct

Real Dangerous Girl, by K. W. Jeter

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

kimoh“I didn’t start out killing people,” the petite, under-21 Korean-American narrator of this first book in the author’s Kim Oh series observes matter-of-factly in the opening sentence. “I had to get to that point. Kind of a work ethic thing. But once I decided to do it –it worked out. I mean –not for them. The people who got killed. I mean for me.” This isn’t the voice of an egoistic sociopath, though. Kim has a conscience and sound moral instincts; she doesn’t pick up the gun readily, and when she does, the danger she poses isn’t to the innocent. (But the guilty had better watch out!)

When I read a glowing review of this novel by one of my Goodreads friends (who went on to glowingly review the subsequent books), it put the series on my radar; so when I saw that the first book was available for free on Kindle, as a hook for the series (it now costs 99 cents), I seized the opportunity to preview it in that format. Jeter is a very successful author with substantial Big Publishing credentials (he chose to go the self-publishing route with this series, and according to his website is excited enough about it that he’s no longer working on anything else). This was my first experience with his work, but I found his craftsmanship and professionalism very evident. It says something about the compulsive readability of this tale that I read the entire novel in two days, which I think is something of a record for me.

Kim’s world is, as a blurb puts it, “dark and gritty.” Orphaned young, she and Donnie, her wheelchair-bound and ailing younger brother, were shunted around through foster care most of their lives. Not yet 21, she’s put herself through junior college early by taking advanced placement classes, and taken advantage of bookkeeping skills picked up from a foster mom to get the only kind of job that offered, in order to be able to make a home for Donnie with her. But what offered was a low-paying job as accountant for what she’s come to realize is a really “dodgy” enterprise, run by a mobster who uses her, among other things, to write checks to pay a guy she suspects is his contract hit man. Pragmatic and a survivor, she’s able to tolerate that, though she doesn’t like it. She clings to the promise her boss made that when he takes the company legit (or at least gives it a more convincing “legit” facade), she’ll be CFO, with better pay and a better life for her little family unit. Instead, she’s shafted and thrown out in the alley like garbage, while a Harvard grad gets the big job. Hit man Cole is similarly downsized, except that his severance leaves him permanently crippled.

These two don’t immediately join forces, and when they do, she’s not motivated solely by wanting revenge (although Cole is). Jeter’s plotting is a lot more nuanced and developed than that. (Firing her didn’t exhaust Mr. McIntyre’s malice; if he survives, she and Donnie might not.) Kim’s a fascinating, three-dimensional character who develops in front of our eyes here, as she moves from what she calls her “Little Nerd Accountant Girl” persona to something else. We can see that she’s attracted to the feeling of empowerment that can come from learning to stand up for herself, and from handling a gun. Some of the same appeal of “primitivism” that readers find in Burroughs and Robert E. Howard is present here, with a protagonist who’s challenged to make her way in a world where the outward conventions of civilization no longer apply. And she gives voice to the anomie of vast numbers of contemporary Americans in her generation, growing up bereft of community and moral/spiritual guidance. (Not identifying with her Korean heritage, at one point she calls herself Feral-American, like the rest of the population. “Nobody tells us what we should do, what we should even freakin’ be…. I gotta try and figure out everything on my own, just like everybody else has to.”) But her instincts are sound, and she remains an essentially decent and likeable person.

The narration here is in first-person present tense, with creative modification where necessary. Jeter’s free-flowing prose never detracts from the story. He delivers violent but never gratuitous action here. with a high body count, but no stress on gore and no “pornography of violence.” (Most of the bodies aren’t dropped by Kim, given her relatively low kick-butt quotient above; but she’s just getting her start in action heroine-hood here. That quotient is apt to rise in the succeeding books.) His emphasis, though (and what makes the book as good as it is) is character development. Kim herself, of course, takes center stage, but all of the supporting characters are vividly drawn, too (though except for Donnie they’re unlikeable; and we can see that Cole’s a much darker personality than Kim is –and that he’s manipulating her for purposes of his own.)

The plot is finely crafted, building perfectly to a powerful denouement and conclusion (which makes it clear that the saga is just beginning). We aren’t told the location, except that it’s a city that has cold weather in winter; sense of place isn’t strong, but that adds to the milieu of rootlessness and atomization. In its way, this is a kind of coming-of-age story. Darkness abounds, but it’s not without light, and a sense of hope even when things are darkest. There’s no explicit sex and very little reference to sex at all, and no obscene speech –indeed, very little bad language at all, and what there is isn’t very rough for the most part. (Jeter uses it sparingly, for realism, but he demonstrates restraint and taste in how he does it.) One plot element, IMO, doesn’t stand examination too well; and real-life child welfare agencies wouldn’t, as here, put kids in foster care in different states (because they’re state-specific). But those were relatively minor quibbles. This is a great start to what promises to be an outstanding series!

Author: K. W. Jeter
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, at this time only as an e-book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads

The Huntresses

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“Charlie’s Korean, Medieval Angels”

During the Joseon era in Korea, a trio of bounty hunters, Jin-Ok (Ha Ji-Won), Hong-Dan (Gang Ye-Won) and Ga-Bi (Son Ga-In), work with their agent, Moo-Myung (Ko Chang-Seok), capturing wanted bandits. But they get a different task, after a King’s envoy carrying an encoded message is the latest courier to go missing, and are charged with bringing him in. Needless to say, it’s not a simple task, and they find themselves facing a host of players opposed to the King receiving the message, which would threaten the fragile relationship with the Chinese emperor. But there’s also a personal angle, as Jin-Ok finds herself face-to-face with the man she remembers as having killed her father.

Huntresses-Poster-5Huntresses-Poster-1Huntresses-Poster-4

Early on, it becomes abundantly clear that this is not intended to be taken entirely seriously, probably from the time one of the heroines whips out her yo-yo, and takes out an entire platoon of enemies, Sukeban Deka style. Indeed, it’s probably the comedic elements that work best, such as the constable who follows him around, convinced his camo skills will stop him being seen – in a rarity for the humour often seen in Eastern films, it’s a joke which could have been used more, rather than being driven into the ground as normal. However, it feels that this lack of seriousness was taken by the makers as a reason to slap together the story, which lurches from set-piece to set-piece without any sense of logic or narrative flow – and don’t even get me started on the whole “dramatic amnesia” suffered by Jin-Ok.

It’s also fairly obvious the actresses aren’t doing very much of their own action, putting them behind Drew Barrymore et al, and in another galaxy, far, far away, from the participants in another cinematic cousin, The Heroic Trio. Ha probably comes off the best of the three, but there’s an awful lot of scenes which consist largely of close-ups of the actresses flailing wildly, intercut with wide shots from behind of someone competent. However, it still passes the time easily, particularly after all the parties involved end up in the port city of Byeokrando – or, at least, a convincing CGI imitation thereof. This allows plenty of scope for some impressive bits of combat, regardless of who’s actually doing them, as well as exploding pagodas, and other chunks of mass destruction. It also helps that the performances are solid from just about everyone concerned, which shores up the flimsy constructs of the storyline.  I’m informed that the Korean title translates as “Three Beautiful Musketeers of Joseon,” and that’s probably an accurate an overall summary as the preceding 400 words.

Dir: Park Je-Hyun
Star: Ha Ji-Won, Gang Ye-Won, Son Ga-In, Ko Chang-Seok

Miss Conspirator

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“A tale – and heroine – of two halves.”

miss conspiratorChun Soo-ro (Go) is a painfully shy, introverted young woman, who is a little more than a bundle of neuroses. At the airport to see off her sister, she encounters a nun, who asks Soo-ro to deliver a package to her boyfriend – a concept which, personally, would set my alarm bells ringing! However, on her arrival, Soo-ro finds the intended recipient dead, and ends up fleeing the scene, in possession of both a large quantity of drugs, and the cash that was intended to pay for them. For obvious reasons, both the White Tiger and Sa gangs, the participants in the deal gone very, very wrong, are rather upset, and go on the hunt for her. For they believe Soo-ro to be the nun, who is unable to disagree, having been killed in a traffic accident. Fortunately, a cop working undercover takes pity and agrees to protect Soo-ro, although his resulting actions lead to exposure – and, meanwhile, the prospect of getting his hands on so much cash leads his boss to stray from the path of true justice. Fortunately, some unexpected hydro-shock therapy leads to a startling transformation in our heroine’s character, and she arranges a meeting between all the interested parties.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but this left me almost entirely cold. Or maybe not, since this wasn’t particularly well-received in its native Korea either, I’m not averse to the “fish out of water” idea – one of my favorite book growing up was Robert Scheckley’s Game of X, about a complete novice who finds himself embroiled in espionage, and I was hoping for something similar here. Unfortunately, this is certainly not funny, only sporadically exciting, ridiculously implausible, and the transition from shrinking violet to ice-cool superwoman is so abrupt as to be entirely disconcerting, almost as if someone switched out movies on you at the 80 minute mark.

From what I’ve read, it seems to have been intended as a showcase for Go, making her feature debut after becoming one of Korea’s best-known TV actresses – mostly for playing roles closer to her later character here. She isn’t bad in the role, and considering how irritating the performance here could have been, the fact that it isn’t deserves some credit. However, “not being irritating” is hardly what you’d call a ringing endorsement for any movie. Things do perk up a little after Soo-ro blossoms into her femme fatale version, and you can’t help thinking this would have been a much better version had the change happened about an hour earlier. Or better still, if it had taken place immediately after the animated opening credit sequence which is one of the movie’s few memorable sequences.

Dir: Park Chul-kwan
Star: Go Hyun-jung, Yoo Hae-jin. Sung Dong-il. Lee Moon-sik

The Deed of Paksenarrion, by Elizabeth Moon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

the deedThis is an omnibus volume containing an entire trilogy of novels: Sheepfarmers Daughter (1988), Divided Allegiance (1988), and Oath of Gold (1989). Together, they tell the story of Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, a young woman in a fantasy world who, as a tall, strapping farm girl of eighteen years, runs away from home to escape an unwanted forced marriage, and joins a company of mercenary soldiers.

Moon’s literary vision here has both strengths and weaknesses (which are sometimes the converse of each other). Her world-building is very detailed; it brooks comparison with Tolkien’s or, at least, Paolini’s on that score. (I appreciate a fictional world where women can occupy positions of power, and can train and serve as soldiers in full equality with men.) She also brings a high level of realism to the fantasy genre; as a Marine veteran, she knows a great deal about what the experience of initiation and training into a military unit is like. Indeed, other than the fact that Paks trains with a sword rather than a rifle, her life as a recruit is probably much like that of real-life modern “grunts” going through boot camp; and Moon recounts it in great detail.

The realistic note continues through the trilogy. Though magic operates in this world, and magical species like elves, dwarves and orcs exist, this element doesn’t appear much in the first book. (It will come much more to the fore in the later ones.) Realistically as well, Moon is willing to suddenly kill off characters, including characters you’ll have come to like and care about — exactly the way that real-life humans may die suddenly in combat situations, whether everybody likes and cares about them or not. Characterizations here are, not surprisingly, very realistic and vivid, and this is true of many secondary and minor characters too.

Some fantasy fans may want a higher level of magical content in their reads than the first book offers, and find it too much on the “mundane” side, though I don’t have a problem with this myself. Some readers won’t be happy to have characters they like, and expect to play more prominent roles, killed off. A bigger problem, though, is pacing. Usually, I have a pretty high tolerance for a slow narrative pace. Even so, I found this one glacially slow. Moon takes us through every aspect of “boot camp” life, every stage of every journey, every part of a siege, etc. You learn a lot about the world and the characters this way, but some scenes don’t add anything along that line. There are exciting, action-filled scenes, too; but many readers would find this narrative draggy in quite a few places. But the pace picks up somewhat in the later books (or perhaps we just get more used to it). And while characters who model responsible sexual behavior are refreshing, Paks’ total disinterest in sex seems at odds with the author’s usual realism. However, that trait will fit in with the future the author has in mind for her heroine.

Paks’ character grows considerably over the course of the trilogy. At the beginning, she’s a good-natured but simple young girl, who’s likeable enough as a person, and who does have a moral code; but she doesn’t think about the ethics of taking human life on the battlefield in wars over things like trade or border disputes, where her company happens to be on whichever side hired them first. To her, that’s just what mercenary soldiers do; it’s simply a morally neutral job that she likes and is pretty good at –though, to her credit, it’s important to her that she’s part of an “honorable company” that doesn’t murder noncombatants or rob innocent peasants.

sheepfarmerBut the first book ends with a crisis of genuine moral decision, in the tradition of serious fiction that aspires to do more than just entertain; and our heroine’s ethical sensibilities are in for real growth and development in the succeeding books. And this comes about as believable personal maturation of who she’s always essentially been, not as an artificial change tacked on by the author. This is one of the great strengths of the trilogy. (For fans who don’t like the military-centric type of fantasy, Paks is taken out of the mercenary company context fairly soon in the second book.)

While the first novel introduces us to the seemingly polytheistic religions and cults of Moon’s fantasy world, the later volumes take us behind the scenes to see more of a unifying pattern in apparent diversity. The human cultures of Pak’s world recognize a righteous Creator, the High Lord; and it’s explicitly suggested that the elven and dwarven concepts of the Creator are the same God, just with a different name and different stressed aspects. Other, lesser “gods” are spiritual entities that either serve the Creator, or in the case of the evil ones (and some are radically evil) oppose him, much like Satan opposes God; while human saints like Gird and Falk are separately venerated by distinct groups of followers, but each are recognized as servants of the common High Lord. In other words, religion in that world is much more monotheistic in essence than it initially appears; and it’s a strongly moral monotheism. (And as in our world, believers have to struggle with challenges to faith and problems of theodicy.) These religious themes play a key part in the last two novels.

There’s plenty of sword-fighting and other action here, quests and intrigue, magical perils, hidden identity, and a plot that’s suspenseful right up almost to the last page. But it’s also a work of rare psychological and spiritual depth, with the kind of serious dimension that marks it as truly great fiction, fiction of lasting literary significance, not just entertainment value. It’s also fiction that will break your heart in places, because there are points where Paks practically goes through hell –and some scenes here are not for the squeamish. But light is only recognizable against darkness; and out of great darkness here comes great light. One of the most powerful scenes in English-language literature that I’ve ever read in a lifetime of reading occurs here (you’ll know it when you read it). It’s a real shame that this trilogy isn’t more widely known by fantasy fans; but more than that, it’s a shame that it’s not recognized as one of the crown jewels of the American literary canon from the late 20th century. I’d like to hope that someday it will be!

Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Baen Books. Available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Undercover Girl

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“A kinder, gentler era. Particularly for heroines.”

AlexisUndercoverDespite a good central idea, this founders on failing to have the courage of its convictions. The heroine’s appearances are book-ended by a boyfriend (Egan) who reckons she’d be better off in an apron than a police uniform, and colleague Mike Trent (Brady), who treats her with hardly any more respect – Chris watched the end of this one with me, and her sole comment (not including various derisive snorts) was, “I would not have fared very well in the fifties…”

Christine Miller (Smith) is the young lady in question, whose father is gunned down by a mobster after spurning a payoff. Christine feels guilty about this, because her father ran up debts to put her through school, and is left with a burning desire to take vengeance on those responsible. Enter Trent, an LA detective who is trying to roll up the entire gang,  but their wary nature has led to him being unable to gather any evidence. He thinks a women, posing as a drugs buyer, might have better luck, and is convinced that with the right coaching, Christine is the right one for the job – over qualms that she might not be able to control her emotive impulses, because she’s a girl ‘n’ stuff. He sends her to bond with Liz Crow (George), a former Chicago criminal who became addicted to her own supply, and is now in rehab, seeking information which will establish a solid background for Christine’s undercover persona.

That done, she moves into a boarding house opposite a low-level connection to the gang, and starts trying to work her way up the food chain. It’s not without issues, as her target remain suspicious, and her cover  is stretched the the limit, for example, when her boyfriend happens to bump into her, calling Christine by her real name within earshot of a lurking gang member. As such, it concentrates more on attempting to craft tension than action, along with a lengthy (too long, it might be said) depiction of the relationship between Christine and Liz. But it doesn’t really work, leading instead to a lengthy climax which appears to consist mostly of people running around a building constructed entirely out of staircases, landings and doorways, shooting at each other with the accuracy of Imperial Stormtroopers. It’s just not something which has aged well, and will leave you mostly with an appreciation of how far cinematic heroines have come in the sixty-plus years since.

Dir: Joseph Pevney
Star: Alexis Smith, Scott Brady, Richard Egan, Gladys George

The Lady Assassin (2013)

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“A new territory of action heroines opens?”

ladyassassinThe first Vietnamese action heroine film I’ve seen is a credible effort, albeit one that is weakened by a couple of obvious flaws. Firstly, the middle section spends far too much time sitting around chatting (particularly in the hot-tub, though to Western eyes, it’s a peculiarly PG hot-tub, with the clothes remaining on), and the occasional game of beach volleyball is about the only concession to action. Secondly, the actresses are much too spindly for the sword-swinging fights they are called on to do here; I’m guessing they are models, but someone really needs to buy them a good meal or two. However, the premise is solid and the central performances are fine. There’s also a rousing finale which lasts a solid 20 minutes, with a surprisingly high body-count, and it’s always best to save the best for last, so your audience leaves the movie with a good final impression. In this case, it certainly upped the grade by at least one-half star.

The main setting is a group of four women, led by Kieu Thi (Thanh Hang) who operate a tavern by the sea, that offers rest and sustenance to passing travellers, with a side menu of more salacious offerings, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. They also have a further sideline: robbing and murdering those they deem appropriate, particularly including corrupt officials. They’re in for a shock though, as the cargo being transported by their latest victims is a young woman, Linh Lan (Tang Thanh Ha) . Her life is spared by Kieu, who realizes that they share a common goal, her and Linh seeking vengeance on the evil general Quan Du, who murdered both of their families. He’s very difficult to get to, but Quan Du has a particular fondness for virgins – while this may rule the more “experienced” Kieu out, it leaves Linh as the perfect assassin, if only she can be trained in the necessary skills.  Time for some wire-fu powered beach volleyball – and the sequences here are better than Beach Spike, at least. But not everyone in and around the tavern is who they seem, and neither might they need to find Quan Du, if he comes to find them first…

The action is a bit of a mixed bag, and that’s putting it mildly. Even in the same sequence, it’ll combine poorly-done CGI and questionable wirework, with stunningly well-executed shots and long takes of acrobatic action. Perhaps it works better seen in 3D, as originally intended, or perhaps that aspect simply acts as a distraction [something we’ve seen often enough in Western 3D films]. But overall, the balance is positive, helped by Thanh’s undeniable screen presence. Outside of her and Tang, the rest of the cast are closer to eye-candy, and this might be one of those cases where more is less. However, for an apparent first stab at the sub-genre of historical action heroines, I’ve seen an awful lot worse, and I’ll have to see if I can find anything else from the local movie industry.

Dir: Quang Dung Nguyen
Star: Tang Thanh Ha, Thanh Hang, Kim Dzung, Anh Khoa