Jirel of Joiry, by C. L. Moore

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

jirelOriginally published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 1930s, Moore’s five stories featuring beautiful swordswoman Jirel, lady ruler of a feudal fiefdom in medieval France, were as germinal in the development of sword-and-sorcery fantasy as the work of her contemporary, Robert E. Howard. Jirel is a strong and complex character, the first in prose fantasy’s long and honorable list of butt-kicking heroines; tough but not brutal, proud and hot-tempered, but possessing a gentle side, too. Like most people in her time, she’s a loyal daughter of the Church –but she’s not especially religious and wouldn’t make any claims to sainthood! Though she’s a veteran fighter of conventional battles, these stories involve her mostly in adventures of another sort, confrontations with dark sorcery, usually in otherworldly, extra-dimensional realms.

Moore’s prose style here was influenced by Poe and Lovecraft (and she’s fully their equal); her plotting and her creation of vivid fantasy worlds, all significantly different from the others, are highly original, and she excels at evoking a mood of strangeness and menace –Jirel’s approach to Hellsgarde castle is a masterpiece of this sort. Some critics have found fault with Jirel’s having romantic feelings toward her enemy in the first story, Guillaume, considering this a betrayal of feminist orthodoxy; but I think her complex feelings are quite plausible psychologically, and lend the story a depth and tension that it wouldn’t have otherwise.

In the first story, “Black God’s Kiss,” searching for an instrument of vengeance and victory over an invader who’s conquered her domain, Jirel dares to explore a dark tunnel underneath Joiry Castle, that leads to what proves to be a dimensional portal. The sequel, “Black God’s Shadow, finds her undertaking the same path, ut with a very different mission. “Jirel Meets Magic” pits her against a malevolent wizard responsible for the deaths of ten of her men. Sinister sorcery brings her from what everybody expects to be her deathbed into a fantasy world beyond this one in “The Dark Land” –but the move may be from the frying pan to the fire. Finally, in “Hellesgarde,” she goes to seek a small leather casket in an ill-omened castle, demanded as the ransom for some of her soldiers held prisoner by a villainous warlord; but small packeges can contain very potent and dangerous things.

The late Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated her first Sword and Sorceress anthology to “every girl who grew up wanting to be Jirel.” When all’s said and done, those girls didn’t pick a bad role model!

Note: Jirel (who’s single) remarks in passing at one point that she’s “no stranger to the ways of light loving,” and she can cuss a blue streak when circumstances provoke it. But there are no direct references to sexual activity in the stories, and no directly quoted bad language.

Author: C. L. Moore
Publisher: Ace Books, available through Amazon, only as a printed book at this time.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Killer Biker Chicks

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“Vanity kills.”

killerbikerchicksOh, dear. I’m sure those involved with the production and their mates loved this. To anyone on the outside… Much less so. However, the problem is not actually the concept, of an all-female biker gang, which had a long, disreputable B-movie pedigree, going back at least to the sixties, with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She-Devils on Wheels and similar films. The women here operate under the leadership of “Mother” (Gorlano), and in something apparently inspired by Sons of Anarchy, run a garage/bar that doubles as gang HQ, from where they also deal meth to passing truckers (and midgets), while taking their tops off at random intervals – in particular Baby Doll (Roth). Possible related: there may be a strip-club that’s part of it, but the film is vague on the details of their infrastructure.  The movie starts well enough, with them out in the desert torturing a man who had done one of them an unspecified wrong, dousing him in gas and setting him on fire.

If the film had stayed here or hereabouts, things would have been significantly better. But the next time we see them, their numbers are inexplicably reduced to a level where they could have their gang meetings in a phone-box. Worst still, writer-director Redding instead chooses to dilute his material with a bunch of truly dreadful supporting characters, who range from superfluous down to the point that you will be praying for a power outage to save you. In the former category are a passing band, Glam Puss, whose van breaks down on their way to a gig, and who have to hang out at the ladies’ establishment for a couple of days. They do actually provide the only genuine laugh in the film, with their reactions to a story from Mother’s earlier years. Further down the scale, at “gratingly cliched,” are a pair of corrupt cops who spent their time hassling and shaking-down citizens, when not hanging out at a strip-club, whose owner is played by Ted V. Mikels, the infamous director of some god-awful works we’ve covered here before. That the makers think him deserving of a cameo should be seen as a warning of what to expect.

Right at the bottom of the barrel, however, are the “comedic stylings” of Rusty Meyers as Hawksmeir, an Azerbaijani tourist. Within two minutes, you’ll be left with deep appreciation for the comparative subtle understatement that was Borat – indeed, through in a Chinese store-owner who is less convincing than Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and you’ve got something which is embarrassingly unfunny at best, and quite possibly offensive [and, don’t forget, I’m someone who loves Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, so do not offend easily]. Almost as annoying is the soundtrack, which appears to consist largely of bands who put the director on the guest-list or something, and is rarely less than aggravatingly intrusive. These, together with random acts of motiveless (and, apparently, pointless) violence by Mother and her crew, dominate proceedings until the last quarter, where a drug deal with another biker gang, the Rebel Cocks, goes wrong, leading to the final confrontation.

Great B-movies take interesting central characters, then put them in situations that drive the storyline forward, and possess a consistent style and approach that complements the content. This merits a marginal passing grade on the first category, but fails utterly at the second, and Redding appears to use every special effect available on his camcorder, resulting in a lurid mess. A decent idea ends up chewed into pulp, then vomited out onto your screen.

Dir: Regan Redding
Star: Brenna Roth, Sara Plotkin, Sarah French, Rose Gorlano

Heavenly Sword

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“Not even deserving a console-ation prize.”

heavenlyswordI wasn’t aware this was based on a video-game, until I started watching it and saw a Sony Playstation credit. In fact, I wasn’t particularly aware that it was animated. Neither would necessarily have made much difference, I guess, but forewarned is forearmed. Maybe knowing the game would make this better? Or maybe not, since that wouldn’t address either of the two main problems here: a storyline crafted entirely from bad pulp fantasy, and animation that works very nicely for action scenes, but is useless at portraying any kind of emotion. To start with the former, there’s a drinking game to be played here: take a swig every time a clichéd story element shows up. On second thoughts, I like my readers unencumbered by alcohol poisoning.

There’s an all-powerful sword, which is guarded by a tribe. Evil king Bohan (Molina) wants the sword, because it, in the hands of the ‘Chosen One’, is prophesied to be the only thing that can destroy him. He attacks the tribe, scattering them to the winds: Noriko (Torv) is given the task of protecting the sword, and bringing it to her half-brother, Loki (Jane) who is the intended bearer. Except, of course, he isn’t where he’s supposed to be, having left his village to become – oh, the irony – a blacksmith in the massive fortress complex belonging to Bohan. So, Noriko, along with sister Kai (Ball), who refers to herself in an irritating third-person way like Gollum with cat-ears, have to head into the heart of enemy territory, with Bohan in hot lukewarm pursuit. However, the ‘Chosen One’ turns out not to be who we’ve been told at all.

This is my unsurprised face.

I don’t like the CGI style here: for too much of the time, this like watching a cut scene from a video game. There are occasional interludes of more-traditional animation and this works rather better: I’d prefer to have seen the whole thing done that way, to be honest. However, I will admit that, when in motion, the flaws are much less obvious, and the final battle, pitting Noriko against an army is impressive; it’s actually credible that she could kick their ass, more or less by herself. The ending does go in a different direction from what was expected, and has a certain poignancy, albeit spoiled by an unnecessary sequel-generating scene during the end titles. Torv and the other voice actors do what they can, but that isn’t much, given their characters’ faces express about as much emotion as an anaesthetized Shaolin monk. The late Roger Ebert once famously said that video games “can never be art.” While I disagree with him, for a number of reasons not relevant here, watching this, I can kinda see from where he was coming.

Dir: Gun Ho Jang
Star (voice): Anna Torv, Alfred Molina, Ashleigh Ball, Thomas Jane

Confine

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“Home invasion, English style”

Pippa (Lowe) is an international model whose career is ended after a car accident leaves her with a disfigured face. Her confidence shattered, she retreats to the safety of her apartment, not leaving it for any reason. But her stately isolation is disrupted by the arrival of Kayleigh (Bennett), an art thief who needs a place to hide out, and takes Pippa hostage while she waits for her accomplice, Henry (Allen), to show up. But when he does, Henry is knocked out and tied up too, as Kayleigh’s hidden agenda becomes apparent: she has few, if any, moral scruples, and is using Henry just as much as she is using Pippa. But is there perhaps even more going on than it seems? Was Kayleigh’s arrival in Pippa’s apartment purely the stroke of bad luck it initially seemed?

There’s something to be said of the claustrophobia generated by a confined setting: in some ways, this reminded me of 2LDK, though the adversaries here clearly have a different kind of relationship. The inability of the heroine here to leave adds an additional level of peril to the well-worn home invasion genre, perhaps making Audrey Hepburn’s Wait Until Dark another influence, with Pippa’s disabilities (which include OCD) standing in for blindness. Tobbell and cinematographer Eben Bolter seem aware of the potential limitations of their space, using a number of visual tricks to keep things interesting, such as overhead shots. While some work, it betrays an apparent lack of confidence in their material and its ability to retain the audience’s engagement. Perhaps this is tied to their lead’s inexperience as an actress – this was Lowe’s feature debut, though her “day job” as a model certainly makes her not inappropriate for the role, and her performance is respectable enough.

confineBennett certainly has the more interesting role, with Kayleigh’s background as much a mystery as her goals: is she genuinely the Sloane Ranger robber she seems? I can’t say I was ever convinced by her character, though it is still much more developed than Henry, who exists almost solely so he can be tied up and abused (between this and Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, it seems torture is a requirement for Allen’s contract). The main problem, however, is a script which consists almost entirely of contrivance: people behave in a way necessary for the script to progress, and which doesn’t make much sense on any other basis. There’s one obvious signpost pointing toward how this will end, so when this comes to pass, it provokes less shock and more of a casual shrug. Maybe it’s all just too Britishly polite for its own damn good.

Dir: Tobias Tobbell
Star: Daisy Lowe, Eliza Bennett, Alfie Allen

The Pirate Vortex, by Deborah Cannon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2

pirate vortex“Calico Jack” Rackham, a Caribbean pirate hanged soon after his capture in 1720, his lover and fellow pirate Anne Bonny (b. ca. 1700) and a few other characters in this series-opening novel were real-life people, who left behind an historical record in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), by one Capt. Charles Johnson. (Johnson is otherwise unknown; many scholars surmise, as Cannon assumes in her novel, that this was a pen name used by Daniel Defoe.) That book forms our main historical source for piracy in that era, and Cannon’s portrayal here seems to be basically very faithful to the historical data as far as it goes, including the fact that we know nothing of Bonny’s ultimate fate (so we’re free to speculate about any descendants she may have had…) –but that data is very embellished here, with time-traveling SF elements.

The author and I are Goodreads friends, but I checked a copy of the book out from the library where I work (so, it wasn’t a review copy). My rating correctly indicates that I liked the read. For me personally, a few factors kept it from a higher rating; but it’s quite possible that other readers wouldn’t weigh those as much, and would rate it higher. (In fact, several already have!)

Our heroine, Elizabeth Latimer, is an 18-year-old college student at the Univ. of Victoria near Vancouver in British Columbia, Cannon’s own stamping grounds. We’re not told her exact age until a few chapters in, and many American readers wouldn’t know there’s a Victoria, Canada; I confused it with the Australian state of Victoria for the first couple of chapters. Liz’s mom, Tess Rackham kept her maiden name and formerly taught an Archaeology of Piracy class at the university; but when her husband John Latimer was lost at sea in a sailing accident four years earlier, she quit that job and went into marine salvage with her business partner, Cal Sorensen. Though her dad taught her to sail proficiently, Liz hasn’t since that day.

She has some issues from her dad’s death and her mother’s not very hands-on parenting of herself and her 14-year-old sister, and mixed feelings about her parents’ obsession with pirate history: she aspires to go into business and make a prosaic career on dry land –but she’s the self-styled “queen” of her school’s competitive fencing program, and taking the same class her mother once taught. Then on a spring morning, two things happen: she meets mystery youth Daniel Corker, and learns that her mom is presumed lost at sea, in the Bermuda Triangle area. This sets us up for a time-traveling adventure.

Cannon handles language capably, without the poor grammar and diction that bedevil so many self-published authors; she’s also written novels before, so this is no freshman effort. Her prose style isn’t of a sort that calls attention to itself; it’s straightforward, with a focus on the story. The pace is fast, and the plot exciting and eventful, with an emphasis on events, action, and snappy dialogue. Young Adult readers affluent enough to be tech-savvy are the main target audience, and there’s a fair amount of tech-talk, texting jargon, and pop culture references that this group would be more at home with than some other demographics; but older readers wouldn’t be lost with these either, since the context usually furnishes clues for any meaning that’s essential to get, and the same goes for nautical terms, though there’s aren’t a lot of those.

Bonney,_Anne_(1697-1720)Liz herself is a well-drawn, likeable but not perfect character, with some depth and complexity to her. As an action heroine, her fencing skills don’t match those of seasoned pirates, she’s not a good shot, and she’s an inexperienced horsewoman; and more often than not, she needs male rescue when in jeopardy. (Considering the situations here, the violence in the book is restrained, and almost never lethal.) Given her background and situation, though, this is only realistic. She’s also got enough guts to fight when necessary, thinks quickly and resourcefully, and is a strong swimmer. Other characters, like Lu, Stevie, Cal and Jerrit Wang, are also quite lifelike.

Time-travel writers divide over the question of how they handle time paradoxes. Some take the position that you can’t change the past – whatever you did there, you’ve already done. Cannon and others treat the past as malleable – you can change it, and you’d better not, or you might erase yourself and your whole bloodline! Personally, I prefer the former approach; but it wasn’t a problem to accept the latter as a literary conceit. I did have some issues with the plotting. In several cases, IMO, characters make decisions that aren’t well explained, or that it doesn’t seem like they would have made in real life, although they’re necessary to move the plot the way the author wants; and some difficult operations/problems are solved too easily or coincidentally. At one point, we’re apparently barely off shore from Nassau, traveling by sail –but are in very short order in swimming distance of Jamaica on the far side of Cuba, a journey that would take days at least.

Liz has unexplained telepathic connections with animals, and sometimes with people: we’re told at one point that she can tell if someone is lying, and Tess can psychically tell if Liz is in danger. In a plot that already demands some suspension of disbelief, this for me was an element that stretched credibility a bit too much. And while CJ the parrot is cute, he and the horse Fancy display a lot more intelligence than parrots and horses really have. (Parrots imitate the sounds of human speech, but in real life they don’t know what they’re saying.)

Romance isn’t really a stressed theme; Liz has always been too focused on her studies and her fencing to have much time for boys and dating (her sister Lu, at 14, is the more boy-crazy of the two). That said, she is a healthy 18-year old who’s aware of attractive unattached males and appreciates their awareness of her, and who wants to someday be married. There’s a triangle of speculative interest here, and there will be a kiss before the book ends; so very romance-phobic readers will want to avoid it. This novel completes its story arc, but it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the sequel(s). Readers who liked this first book will probably want to continue the series; and I definitely plan to set sail with The Jade Pirate myself sometime!

Note: There are a couple of instances of implied sex here, but nothing explicit. There’s some use of d- and h-word language and vulgarisms, but no obscenity and little profanity.

Author: Deborah Cannon
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Rica 3: Juvenile Lullaby

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“Carry On Raping”

rica3The third and last installment depicting the adventures of mixed-blood juvenile delinquent Rica (Aoki), has very much run out of ideas and is playing out the string: it’s no surprise the series ended here, all but taking Aoki’s career with it. As in the previous installment, it starts off with her confined to Aiyu Reform School, but it isn’t long before she has busted out. The storyline here focuses again on her half-black friend Hanako, whose daughter has run away. Unfortunately, she has actually been abducted by a gang, who are selling her on to a Western pornographer, who will pay a high price for a Japanese virgin. Rica herself falls foul of the gang, whose leader has no tolerance for Americans or Amerasians, due to an earlier incident where his girlfriend was raped by GIs and later killed herself.

Which all might be interesting – or, at least, okay – if this were executed straight, for intensity. Unfortunately, they got a new director in, Yoshimura replacing Kô Nakahira at the helm for this one, and he appears to have had a very different vision of the project.  For some reason known only to the film-makers, large chunks of this are obviously played for comedic relief, such as the sequence where they try to gang-rape Rica, only to be knocked out, one by one, through having a winch dropped on their heads. Throw in music which appears to have strayed in from Benny Hill, and you have something that has failed dismally to make the cultural transition over time and space – and that’s not even getting into the astonishingly obvious use of blackface for Hanako. It would take a special kind of talent to pull this kind of political incorrectness off, and even speaking as a viewer who is about as far from PC as imaginable, Yoshimura comes up woefully short. If you can make me cringe with embarrassment for the heroine, you’re doing… something. Just not what I want.

There are redeeming elements, led by Aoki’s continually smouldering portrayal of the heroine, who has a chip the size of Stonehenge on her shoulder against society, and takes no shit from anyone, be it her cell-mates in reform school, street punks or pornographic film-makers. When the film is pointed in the right direction, it’s by no means terrible; it’s just unfortunate that this tone is never sustained for long, before another wacky interlude destroys any atmosphere. It’s also a shame Aoki appeared in only one other movie, 1974’s Gakusei yakuza, since she has a striking look that could have sustained a longer career. This isn’t much of an epitaph.

Dir: Kôzaburô Yoshimura
Star: Rika Aoki, Jiro Kawarazaki, Taiji Tonoyama, Kotoe Hatsui

You’re Next

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“Home not-so Alone”

yourenextErin (Vinson) goes with her boyfriend Crispian (Bowen) to meet his parents and the rest of his relatives at the family home, where the parents are celebrating their anniversary. There’s some friction between Crispian and his brother, but proceedings are even more rudely interrupted when a group of three masked psychopaths, who have already killed the two residents at the house next-door, turn their attentions to this residence. Armed with crossbows and machetes, and having blocked cellphone service, there seems little or nothing anyone can do, but wait to get picked off by the assailants. However, it turns out that Erin’s upbringing in Australia was an unusual one: her father was part of a survivalist group. As a result, what she does have, are a very particular set of skills, skills she has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like the home invaders. Hang on: why am I suddenly typing with an Irish accent?

For a cheerfully cheap (the budget was only a million dollars) little feature, disguised behind a generic title – I confused it with No-one Lives, and a hat-tip to Dieter for straightening this out! what we have here is actually effective and brisk. Though I’m not sure it merits the “black comedy” designation I’ve seen attached to it in various places: it’s straightforward home invasion stuff for the most part, even if we do discover a specific motivation for the attack. I’m not sure if that weakens or strengthens the movie. In terms of generating fear, a more effective approach is probably taken by The Strangers where, when asked why they were doing this, the response is simply, “Because you were home.” What does stand out, and why it qualifies here, is that Erin is, far and away, the only genuinely competent character in the film, and becomes increasingly impressive as the film develops. Initially, she’s as shocked as everyone else; once that has worn off, she first begins to take defensive measures, then gradually moves into offensive mode. By the end, the tables have been turned, and she’s the one doing the hunting.

The main problem is the attackers who, to be honest, are a bit crap, staggering around and falling for every trap like the burglars in Home Alone. Their complete lack of guns is also a bit odd: despite Erin’s background, this is set in America, not Australia, where such weapons would be a lot harder to come by. If you can get past these elements, and it’s not too hard to do so, there is plenty here to appreciate, especially for horror fans: genre icon Barbara Crampton plays the mom, director Ti West has a cameo as a resolutely non-commercial film-maker, and there is also one large tip of the cap to Night of the Living Dead, about which I can’t say any more. While the movie may not aspire to great art, not every work has to. Sometimes, knowing your limitations is the key to working within them, and that’s so here.

Dir: Adam Wingard
Star: Sharni Vinson, ‎Wendy Glenn, ‎Adam Wingard, ‎AJ Bowen

Deep Gold

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“Sea minus.”

deep goldI love reading IMDb reviews where half are “totally brilliant film-making!” [obviously by people related to the production, who have generally reviewed nothing else] and half are “worst movie ever!” More than half the votes here are either 10’s or 1’s: of course, the truth lies in the middle. This is proficient, with occasional aspirations to competence, along with some nice production values and scenery, yet founders mostly on a bad script, partly on a misguided belief that filming underwater is interesting, in and by itself. That probably hasn’t been true since Jacques-Yves Cousteau hung up his Undersea World snorkel at the start of the eighties. Maybe these sequences worked better in 3D, as originally shot?

It’s the story of two sisters, Amy (Pham) and Jess (Ong): the former is a free-diving champion, but the latter refuses to go into the sea [there are reasons for this, explained in flashback; they are, however, irrelevant. Of course, her hydrophobia is an obvious foreshadow of the movie’s climax]. Amy’s boyfriend is in the Air Force, but vanishes along with his plane, transporting a cargo of gold back to Manilla. The Air Force suspect he and Amy may have staged the disappearance to solve their financial problems, and so the sisters head for where reports indicate the aircraft went down. Which isn’t anywhere near where the search is taking place. Hmm. There, they team up with a local businesswoman (Prudent), and also travel journalist, Benny Simpson (director Gleissner pulling double-duty), only to find they are not the only people interested in recovering the golden treasure.

I’m not the only person to have reviewed this and been reminded of the work of Andy Sidaris, with which it shares a tropical location and actresses cast more for their looks than their variable thespian abilities. This does have a glossier sheen; on the other hand, if you’re hoping for any nudity, look elsewhere. I think the main problem is the old “acting in your second language” issue, which appears to be the case for most of the cast. Pham has to do most of the heavy lifting, and nails only about one line in three, with others sounding more as if they are delivered through phonetic translation. When things are in motion and SCUBA-free, the film fares rather better. The action scenes are decently staged, the pick likely being Amy getting chased around a library by a slew of thugs, though the final ship-board encounter is nicely done as well. However, embarrassing sloppiness counters this, such an abduction scene where it looks like the same henchman climbs into the car twice, once in the back and once in the front, while Amy’s hands mysteriously get bound, albeit with the sort of constraint she can literally shake off.

It works mostly as a very nice promotional piece for the local tourist board, and if you’re looking for something pleasant looking and possessing absolutely no depth, you could do a lot worse. However, the more you look at this in detail, the more you will likely find yourself going, “Hang on…”, and that’s even before a final credits sequence where the actual local mayor reveals some kinda important storyline information. It’s just another part of a plot which strains even my credulity, and leaves the movie, if not sunk, certainly holed below the waterline.

Dir: Michael Gleissner
Star: Bebe Pham, Jaymee Ong, Michael Gleissner, Laury Prudent

The Pulptress, edited by Tommy Hancock

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

pulptressPro Se Press is a relatively new small press devoted to the tradition of pulp fiction, as exemplified by the U.S. magazines in the earlier part of the 20th century. Through their Pulp Obscura imprint, they rescue older classic stories from undeserved obscurity; and they’re a venue for contemporary “New Pulp” authors, who seek to keep the tradition and its spirit alive. Founding editor Tommy Hancock created the costumed character of the Pulptress as a role for a model to play in representing Pro Se at pulp conventions and other venues (debuting with great success at the first Pulp Ark convention in 2011). It wasn’t long before the idea of using her as a fictional protagonist was born; hence, this first Pulptress story collection of five tales, written by Hancock and four other invited contributors from the Pro Se family.

Our heroine is intentionally something of a mystery woman. As Hancock explains in the short introduction, she’s the orphaned daughter of two pulp era heroes, though we’re not told who (her real first name is Emily, but we don’t know her last name). Fostered by a few other pulp heroes, both classic and New Pulp, who taught her a lot that’s not usually covered in a typical education, she’s now in her 20s. Like Pro Se Press, she’s based in small-town Arkansas; but she travels wherever her mission leads her, and her mission is to help the innocent and take down the perpetrators of evil, working from outside the normal channels of law enforcement and with a variety of aliases. A mistress of disguise and possessed of gymnastic skills that are, I’d say, of Olympic quality, she’s also smart, trained in martial arts, and no slouch with a firearm. While she’s attractive, she’s also described at various points as “strong,” and “buff,” with well-toned muscles –as the cover art indicates, those aren’t antithetical ideas.

A potential problem in this type of collection can be that the individual authors don’t have enough common conception of the main character to make her seem like the same person from story to story. That’s largely not a problem here: the Pulptress is recognizably herself from beginning to end, and all five writers draw her with an appealing, good-hearted and easily likeable personality; she cares about others, and she’s got an obvious zest for the challenging and adventurous elements in what she does. Being adept at hand-to-hand (or foot-to-head, or fist-to-gut, etc. :-) ) fighting, her situation doesn’t require her to use a gun, or lethal force, in all stories, and you get the impression that bringing her (human, at least) opponents in alive is her preference; but as Ron Fortier’s “Butcher’s Festival” indicates, she can also handle situations where that’s not an option. (I didn’t view that as a contradiction, just a flexible response to different circumstances.) A more noticeable contradiction is in the area of speaking style. Like the older pulp yarns that serve as models, none of these stories has a large amount of bad language (some have none), and all the writers here avoid obscenity or misuse of Divine names. But in some stories, our protagonist will cuss some, while in others she doesn’t at all. Most people are more consistent in their speech than that, so it would be more realistic to let her be consistent as well. But this wasn’t a major problem for me!

The quality of the writing in all five stories is good; our authors each have their own style, but they all use description well and bring characters and settings to vivid life. (Andrea Judy’s evocation of the catacombs under the city of Paris is especially memorable; if she hasn’t actually been there, her research was exceptionally good.) The action scenes are (for pulp) realistic, in that we don’t have protracted fights between two combatants who absorb punishment well beyond human capacity and keep fighting; here, a knock-out blow to the head will do what that kind of blow actually does. Emily’s not Super Girl, either; she can be pushed to her absolute physical limit at times, and she doesn’t disdain help or rescue when it’s needed. An interesting feature of the stories is that they sometimes employ other series characters, whose paths cross the Pulptress’ to give her a helping hand: Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon, a black man whose race is underrepresented among pulp heroic figures (used by Hancock in “Black Mask, Big City”), Erwin K. Roberts’ The Voice, and Fortier’s Brother Bones. Obviously, prior knowledge of these characters would enhance those stories, but it isn’t required; I hadn’t encountered any of them before. (If you haven’t, these tales may whet your interest –I’d definitely like to read more Brother Bones stories!) Given my liking for the supernatural in fiction, it was an added plus to find that the menaces in two stories are supernatural, and another has a definitely supernatural important character.

Arguably, I hand out too many five-star ratings; but I loved these stories, and didn’t really see any serious downside here (though you’ll find the occasional minor typo or editorial snafu). If pulp action adventure is your thing, what with no sex, tasteful handling of violence (nothing gratuitous or over-stressed), a conflict of good and evil that you know in your gut the bad guys don’t have a prayer of winning, and a heroine you can respect and admire, you can’t go wrong with this one!

Editor: Tommy Hancock
Publisher: Pro Se Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Rica 2: Lonely Wanderer

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“Black and white and red all over…”

rica2Our mixed-blood heroine is back, albeit with a slightly-different spelling of her name, a C replacing a K. But she’s still wading through criminal shenanigans from the get-go, as she escapes from reform school and gets informed that her similarly cross-bred friend, Hanako, is in trouble. The bearer of the bad news is shot dead before she can provide details, and when Rica heads to northern Japan, her train journey leaves a trail of dead bodies, of those apparently intent in making sure she doesn’t find out the truth. Turns out Hanako was providing entertainment on a ship, which was sunk by criminals, and one of the gangs responsible, under their female boss Yukie Shimamura (Tonoyama), is obliged to tidy up the loose ends – Hanako is now confined to a mental hospital. The local police, certain members of whom have ties to the gang, are not exactly enthusiastic about investigating any of this, but there’s clearly someone (Minegishi) on Rika’s side, as she finds herself receiving assistance and protection, from a source whose motivations are initially opaque. However, as the corpses continue to pile up, how long will it be before Rica becomes another one of them?

I’m not sure if the makers are taking this one seriously or not. Some aspects, such as Rica’s train ride, have an avant-garde and almost surreal approach, told without dialogue and instead utilizing a series of deliberately jarring cuts, between Rica and close-ups of the sun-glass wearing men who are following her. It’s unusual, effective and memorable. But then, there are other moments which are so ludicrous as to be completely laughable. For example, one fist-fight between Rica and a man trailing her, ends with him pulling out a short sword and committing seppuku. Why didn’t he – and this is just a casual suggestion – stab her with the freakin’ knife. There are also several too many song and dance numbers, mostly courtesy of Rica’s transvestite sidekick, though she herself also gets to strut her stuff on the stage at one point. and there’s more than the usual amount of casual xenophobia.

Against this, there’s no doubt that she seems to kick ass with copious frequency, though the fight scenes here fall more into a category I’d label, “enthusiastically amateurish.” It’s also nice that she’s going up against a female adversary. Shimamura herself makes for an intriguing character, since she’s following in her father’s footsteps, despite severe misgivings about having to keep the promises he made. The story does build fairly nicely, wobbly through its shakier moments to a final confrontation that ties up the loose ends, yet still leaves things open for a sequel. And, what’s this sitting in my viewing pile? Part 3? Despite some undeniable misgivings about the story here, don’t mind if I do…

Dir: Kô Nakahira
Star: Rika Aoki, Ryunosuke Minegishi, Taiji Tonoyama, Mizuho Suzuki