Sword and Sorceress, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

swordandsorceressIn the series of anthologies of original stories which began with this volume, the late editor Bradley mines similar territory, and deals with similar strong female protagonists, as does Esther Freisner in the later Chicks in Chainmail series. The quality of writing (at least in the initial volumes) is high in both; the main difference being that Bradley’s series tends to feature tales that are more serious in tone, with less humor. (Though that doesn’t mean that they all necessarily have none of the latter; and a couple would have been at home in the later series as well.) That doesn’t reduce their entertainment value, and often makes them more compelling.

The 15 stories in this volume come in great variety, as do the settings, and the heroines. Some of the latter can be rough-edged, and may sometimes do some things I wouldn’t do, or recommend; but all of them have good hearts at their core, and earn the reader’s goodwill and respect. (Some of them, like Charles de Lint’s bounty huntress Aynber, and Charles R. Saunders’ alternate-African warrior woman Dossouye, are series characters who appear in a number of stories elsewhere by these authors.) Some of my favorites here are “The Valley of the Troll,” “Gimmile’s Songs,” “Severed Heads” (which isn’t as grisly-gory as the title makes it sound), “Child of Orcus,” “Daton and the Dead Things” and “Sword of Yraine.” But virtually all of these are worth reading; the only one here that I felt was a little weak is “House in the Forest.”

Bradley’s substantial introduction is an added benefit of the book; she provides a good historical sketch of the role of female characters in sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, and some really insightful comments on the appeal and value of strong, three-dimensional heroines in this field. (Her meaty bio-critical notes on each story’s author are a very worthwhile feature, as well!) She very rightly outlines an equalitarian perspective that explicitly differentiates her purpose from “feminist propaganda” and Woman-uber alles male-bashing; the female perspective here is rightly seen as an essential part of the human perspective, that includes both genders as important, needed and responsible contributors to the world and the human story.

Even so, I would differ with her on one point. Though she dedicates this volume to C. L. Moore and to “all of us who grew up wanting to be Jirel,” she faults Moore here for Jirel’s realization in “Black God’s Kiss,” (which isn’t included here) after killing her adversary Guillaume, that she loved him; Bradley thinks this weakens the character, and sends the message that “woman’s pride only stood in the way of true happiness –interpreted as surrender to a man.” Personally, I didn’t take Moore’s story that way; I interpreted it as a true-to-life reflection of the fact that sometimes underneath anger and enmity there can be a bond between two people –just as a male, too, might feel attracted to a woman who can fight him tooth-and-nail, and even defeat him. (And it’s as much, or more, Guillaume’s pride as Jirel’s that separates them.) But that’s a quibble –and one that has nothing to do with the great stories in this collection!

Editor: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Publisher: DAW Books, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Angel of Fury

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“Never mind the action quality, feel the quantity!”

angel of furyJust to confuse matters, there are actually two Rothrock flicks by this title: in 1993, the year after this, the same title was used as an alternative name for Lady Dragon 2, starring her and Billy Drago. There is no Drago to be found in this entry. Indeed, there is not much to be found except for an abundance of mediocre action, and a surprising degree of violence aimed at children. There’s no denying the almost non-stop volume of fights and chases: however, it’s like a copious, all-you-can-eat buffet consisting entirely of vanilla pudding: you’ll likely walk away unsatisfied.

Cynthia plays Nancy Bolan, the head of security for a tech company, who is charged with delivering a special computer to the company’s Indonesian offices. No soon has she arrived than she is attacked, and the computer stolen. But that’s okay, because it turns out there are actually three computers, two of them decoys, and they have a large explosive payload which goes off if someone tries to access them without the deactivation code. They are being sought by ‘Bolt’ (O’Brian), a terrorist who wants them because…. Mumble mumble something terrorist? And he is prepared to stop at nothing, even involving the little moppet befriended by our heroine, who is taken to what appears to be an Indonesian Disneyland knockoff, featuring some guy dressed as a rat. Fortunately, there’s also Nancy’s former squeeze (Barnes), who was so attached to her, he left Nancy believing he was dead for three year. I’ve had girlfriends like that too.

This does possess some certifiably insane moments, likely none more so than Nancy riding a motorcycle straight at a car, leaping through the air, kicking the driver through the windshield which triggers it to roll over out of control, while she walks away. Sadly, is is filmed in such an amateur way, the results are nowhere near as awesome as that sounds, since it just looks stupid and unbelievable. Such is the approach for much of the rest of the movie, right from the start where the bad guys apparently do have guns, yet don’t use them when they first fight Nancy, only when they’re subsequently chasing after her boat on jet-skis. While there are occasional moments where you do see what Rothrock is capable of, these are sporadic at best, and a pale imitation of her best work in Hong Kong. Director Anwari was also responsible for Virgins From Hell, which was at least amusingly bad. For much of its running time, this is simply a large helping of that vanilla pudding mentioned earlier.

Dir: Ackyl Anwari
Star: Cynthia Rothrock, Chris Barnes, Peter O’Brian, Zainal Abidin
a.k.a. Triple Cross

The Trail

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“God told me to do it.”

thetrailI’m not religious, and “faith-based” films normally have me running a mile, though I confess a certain guilty fondness for the more extreme, Revelations-based work [I mean, have you ever read Revelations? The things that go down are certifiably insane. This is what Hollywood should be making, not Noah or Moses stories]. But it was only at the end of this, with a final title quoting a Bible verse, that I realized The Trail likely falls into the category, as shown by the alternate title; fortunately, it’s very much understated, and can be appreciated even by godless heathens like myself. Amelia (Jandreau) is on her way to California as part of a wagon train with her husband (Brown), when they decided to split off on their own, he believing he knows a short cut. Unfortunately, they are attacked by Indians, and Amelia is left, on her own, in the middle of nowhere, to try and make her way through a vast, unforgiving wilderness.

The closest cousin is Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Walkabout, not least because Jandreau bears more than a passing resemblance to Walkabout‘s star, Jenny Agutter: both have a similar pale beauty, and habit of opening their mouths just a smidge. The similarity is also in the relationship Amelia strikes up with a young indigenous child (Nash) she meets, that proves crucial to her chances of survival, echoing the one in Roeg’s film. However, the take here is a good deal less earthy and primitive in its themes, and Amelia is a good deal less dependent, instead being a lot more pro-active, which is why it merits coverage on this site, being equally a story of self-discovery and survival against the odds. Indeed, perhaps its main weakness is, rather too much against the odds: while there’s not much idea of the overall timeframe here, she survives blizzards clad only in a light dress (the kid is sensibly wearing furs), and doesn’t seem to do much hunting or gathering beyond a tiny fish. Maybe that’s supposed to represent the power of her faith?

Despite throwing this on late at night, it managed to hold my interest better than you think it might, considering the lack of conventional action sequences: it’s more or less 95 minutes of Amelia versus the great outdoors. It helps that the heroine is given an inner strength of character – again, I presume in hindsight, this is a religious thing – and determination to overcome any obstacle, sometimes with inventiveness, such as when she turns her wedding dress into a fishing-net. The landscapes are fabulous, and the photography does both them and the heroine justice, capturing the latter with an almost luminescent glow. As a different take on the era, eschewing the obvious characters and situations, it’s worth a look if you’re in a more contemplative mood.

Dir: William Parker
Star: Jasmin Jandreau, Tommy Nash, Shannon Brown
a.k.a. Let God

Did You Say Chicks?, edited by Esther Friesner

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

didyousaychicksPublished in 1998, this is the second of several installments in editor Friesner’s series of original-story anthologies featuring strong, mostly warrior women in (mostly) a sword-and-sorcery fantasy milieu. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s older, long-running Sword and Sorceress series is the closest counterpart, but the stories Friesner selects are much more often on the humorous side, and relatively lighter on actual violence –the protagonists here can handle themselves well in a fight, but tend in practice to triumph more by the use of intelligence, or to be able to find common ground with potential opponents where that’s possible. (Lethal violence is more apt to be mentioned, if at all, as an event that happened before the action in the particular story.) Many of my comments in my review of the first collection, Chicks in Chainmail, are relevant here, and my overall enjoyment was similar. (I rated both books at four stars.)

There are 19 stories here, written by 23 authors (three are two-person collaborations); as she did the first time, Friesner herself contributes a story, in addition to her role as editor. Eleven of these, including Harry Turtledove, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, and Margaret Ball, also contributed to the 1995 first collection. Among the authors new to the series (and to me) here are Barbara Hambly, Sarah Zettel and S. M. Stirling. (Short biocritical endnotes are provided for all of the authors.) Besides her story, Friesner also prefaces the book with a dedicatory poem to Lucy Lawless, star of the then still-running Xena, Warrior Princess TV show. In keeping with the tone of most of the stories, her poetic style is more Ogden Nash than Dante, and she doesn’t take herself too seriously (after the poem, she appends a quote from Dr. Johnson, “Bad doggerel. No biscuit!”) –but there’s an underlying seriousness of equalitarian feminist message as well. (The final selection, Adam-Troy Castro’s “Yes, We Did Say Chicks!” is a similarly tongue-in-cheek flash fiction, but it’s cute!)

Not all of the stories are actual sword-and-sorcery, or fantasy. One of the two strictly serious ones, Turtledove’s “La Difference,” is a science-fiction yarn set on the Jovian moon Io, as a male-female pair of scientists trek across a dangerous and unforgiving alien terrain as they flee from enemy soldiers bent on slaughtering them. (This is also one where the female doesn’t singlehandedly save the day; she and her male partner work as a very good team.) Laura Anne Gilman’s “Don’t You Want to Be Beautiful?” is set in our own all-too-familiar world, where females are pressured by advertising and culture to fixate on their appearance and spend vast sums on products that supposedly enhance it; and it isn’t clear if the surreal aspects of the story are really happening or are the protagonist’s hallucinations. (This is one of a few stories that women readers will probably relate to more easily than men will.) Slue-Foot Sue, the heroine of Laura Frankos’ contribution, is the bride of Pecos Bill in the American tall-tale tradition, of which this story is definitely a continuation (though it’s also one of two stories that feature Baba Yaga, the witch figure from Russian folklore). And while the story is fantasy, the title character of Doranna Durgin’s “A Bitch in Time” isn’t a woman, but a female dog –albeit one who’s trained to detect and guard against magic.

My favorite story here is Hambly’s “A Night With the Girls,” the other strictly serious tale in the group. This features her female warrior series character, Starhawk, here on an adventure without her male companion Sun Wolf; I’d heard of these two before, but never read in that fictional corpus. (I’m definitely going to remedy that in the future!) Both Moon and Ball bring back their protagonists from their stories in the first book for another outing here, to good effect. The protagonist of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Keeping Up Appearances” is a professional hired assassin, who approaches her chosen line of work pretty matter-of-factly, without noticeable moral qualms. But she’s also capable of genuine love and loyalty, especially towards her business partner and common-law husband, with whom she hopes to one day settle down and retire.

So when she returns from a trip to find that he’s unilaterally accepted a contract on a powerful wizard and, while trying to scout the job by himself, gotten turned into a hamster, we can sympathize with her distress, and hope she can reverse the situation. (Can she? Sorry, no spoilers here!) If you’ve read Beowulf and want to know what really happened to Grendel, check out Friesner’s “A Big Hand for the Little Lady.” And Steven Piziks’ “A Quiet Knight’s Reading” is another tale that’s close to my heart (you’ll see why if you read it!). At the other end of the spectrum, two stories I didn’t especially care for were Scarborough’s “The Attack of the Avenging Virgins” and Mark Bourne’s “Like No Business I Know.” The former story, among other things, delivers an essentially sound message, but in a story so message driven that it’s more of a tract, and with an annoyingly “PC” vibe.

As with the original book, bad language is absent or minimal in most stories. Bourne’s is the exception, with quite a bit of it, including religious profanity and one use of the f-word. Sexual content is more noticeable in this volume, with unmarried sex acts (not explicit) in a couple of selections, rape of males by females in another, and a lesbian/bisexual theme thrown into another one as a surprise. “Oh Sweet Goodnight!” is the most frankly erotic story, with its focus on the heroine’s sex life; but the male-female author team treats sexual situations realistically rather than salaciously, and the ultimate message here isn’t as far from traditional morality as some might expect. (This is also a story where magic is absent; Fern’s a sword-toting guardswoman in a low-tech society, but she could just as easily be a divorced single mom in modern America, making a living as a cop or security guard –and modern readers will find her easy to relate to on that basis.)

Editor: Esther Friesner
Publisher: Baen, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Solo

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“…and this is why we don’t camp.”

soloGillian (Clark) takes a job as a summer-camp counselor, only to discover that part of the training involves her spending two nights, by herself, on an island in the middle of a nearby lake. That isn’t an ideal sitation for Gillian, since she’s troubled by nightmares of her past, and is unsettled to discover a previous trip by campers to the island, ended when a young girl sleepwalked her way to tragedy. Her spirit is still supposed, according to camp counselor lore, to roam the island, etc. etc. There may be less parapsychological threats to Gillian’s safety, although are they real or just her paranoia playing up? She finds a broken doll, and then finds a tent, with photos of young women taped to the roof inside. Ok: it’s probably not just her paranoia then. The potential culprits include Fred (Clarkin), the creepy owner of the camp, who was part of the previous expedition; his creepy son, Marty (Love), called “Martian” by the other councillors, for reasons that are obscure; and apparently friendly fisherman, Ray (Kash), who shows up and offers first-aid, after Gillian gashes her leg.

Clark is a decent heroine, although one perhaps too defined by her vulnerabilities. The main issue is a script that is astonishingly dumb. For instance, as with any modern wilderness horror, it has to deal with The Cellphone Issue. Here, it does so by Gillian being forbidden from taking hers on to the island, which is kinda neat. Except she does. But there’s still no signal. So she swims out into the water, the phone in a plastic bag held between her teeth, and tries to send a text. When that doesn’t work, she hurls it away in a fit of pique. At some point later, the phone unilaterally decides to send the text. But the recipient doesn’t bother doing anything significant with it. WHAT WAS THE POINT? They should simply have stopped at her being forbidden to take hers on to the island. It’s this kind of inanity which plagues much of the proceedings here, with people behaving in ways that don’t seem credible.

This is just about plausible for the villain – after all, you are a loony stalking camp counselors in the middle of a lake,  critical thinking may not be your forte. However, the second half of the film, consists of little more than four people stumbling around, making poor decisions. Much though you want to root for Gillian, and she does find a decent amount of inner fortitude at the end (Let’s just say, “Anchors aweigh!” and leave it at that), the overall feeling is that everyone deserves to be voted off this island.

Dir: Isaac Cravit
Star: Annie Clark, Daniel Kash, Steven Love, Richard Clarkin

Restless

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“Before she was Agent Carter…”

restlessWatching Atwell walking the streets of forties New York as British agent Eva Delectorskaya does little to dissuade you from the feeling that this could be a prequel to Agent Carter, telling about some of her wartime exploits, before she goes to work for the Strategic Scientific Reserve. There’s actually a good deal more going on: the two-part TV miniseries starts 30 years after the end of the war, when Sally Gilmartin (Rampling) reveals to her daugher, Ruth (Dockery), the truth about her identity as the former Miss Delectorskaya, recruited in pre-war Paris by British intelligence, after her brother is killed by fascists. After things kick off, she is sent first to Belgium, and then to New York where she works on efforts to get America into the war, and continues a relationship with her boss, Lucas Romer (Sewell). However, sent on what appears to be a simple courier mission to New Mexico, she finds evidence pointing to another agenda, and which suggests a traitor within the department. It’s this which leads to her going off-grid: but it appears her fake identity has been compromised back in the present day, with her home under surveillance, by person or persons unknown.

The vast spread of this, taking place over four decades or so, requires the use of two actresses to play the lead, and that can often be an issue. However, here it’s possible to imagine Atwell aging into someone like Rampling – if you look at pictures of the latter from the seventies, they are not entirely dissimilar. [It certainly works much better than the idea of Sewell becoming Michael Gambon, which is the other half of the equation] At three hours, this may be a bit over-stretched, particularly in the second half, where there seems to be a lot of going from one place to another without much purpose. Contrast this to the tenseness delivered by the first part, in particular when Eva and Lucas go to a Dutch border town, where a Gestapo officer is supposed to be defecting, only for the operation to go horribly wrong after a botched exchange of pass-phrases. But whose fault was that? I’d like to have seem more of these thriller aspects, as Hall (who has worked both on Spooks and Strike Back) seems to have a good handle on these.

The ending was a little bit of a damp squib as well: it became apparent early on who the traitor is, if only because all the other credible candidates get bumped off. From that point, you are more or less waiting for the inevitable face-off between the parties concerned, although the acting abilities of those involved certainly help. After a few years, in the acting wilderness, Rampling seems to be undergoing a bit of a late career renaissance, between roles like this, and in Dexter and Broadchurch. Maybe she’ll follow the footsteps of Helen Mirren and become an action heroine for the older generation: on the basis of this, she would probably do rather well.

Dir: Edward Hall
Star: Hayley Atwell, Rufus Sewell, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery

Chicks in Chainmail, edited by Esther Friesner

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

chainmailWhile the stereotypical image of the warrior in our culture tends to be male, warrior women were not unknown in the world of antiquity; they left their mark on classical, Celtic, and Norse-Teutonic legend, and found a literary prototype in the “lady knight” Britomartis, who rides through the pages of Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. The creators of the sword-and-sorcery fantasy tradition in the early pulps drew on this background to create a few sword-swinging heroines such as C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry and Conan’s comrade-in-arms Valeria in Robert E. Howard’s “Red Nails.”

With the rise of women’s liberation, their ranks have been considerably swelled in contemporary fantasy, and two anthology series of original short stories have appeared to showcase them: the Sword and Sorceress collections begun by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and the Chicks in Chainmail series begun with this volume. Having read the first volumes of both, I’d say they’re both quality work; to the extent that they have a difference, it would be that the tone of the stories in this collection tends to be more on the lighthearted and humorous side than that of the stories in the Bradley collection –though there are exceptions in both groups. (It should be noted that the term “chicks” in the title here isn’t used in any disrespectful sense, any more than “gal” is in the parlance of an older generation.)

Twenty authors are represented with stories in this volume, some of them well-known in speculative fiction circles, such as Roger Zelazny, Harry Turtledove, Josepha Sherman, George Alec Effinger (who contributes a story featuring his series heroine, Muffy Birnbaum, “barbarian swordsperson”) and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The great majority of the stories are quite entertaining, and they not infrequently have good messages (like much of the fiction in this genre, they tend to extol heroic qualities of character). My personal favorite is “The New Britomart” by Eluki Bes Shahar (she also writes as Rosemary Edghill), set in England in 1819, where a country baronet, inspired by Ivanhoe, decides to stage a medieval-style tournament. (Toss in a powerful closeted sorceress with no scruples, a couple of visitors from Faerie, an Ivanhoe character brought to life by magic, a genuine dragon, a girl who wants to compete as a knight and a guy who wants to be a librarian, and anything may happen.)

Other especially good selections are Sherman’s “Teacher’s Pet,” Elizabeth Waters’ “Blood Calls to Blood” (I’d welcome seeing her heroine as a series character!), and David Vierling’s spoof of old-time pulp fantasies, “Armor/Amore.” Margaret Ball’s “Career Day,” despite its invidious portrayal of its only Christian character, manages to be a strong story about personal growth, where the heroine learns some worthwhile lessons. But almost all of the stories are well worth reading, not just these five. Any collection of 20 stories is likely to have one or two that not every reader cares for, and this one is no exception. IMO, Susan Schwartz’ bizarre “Exchange Program,” in which Hillary Clinton is killed in an Amtrak accident and winds up going to Valhalla (or a grotesque parody of Valhalla) is the weakest selection; it falls flat, in my estimation. But in the main, these tales are well worth a read.

Note: Bad language is absent or very rare in these stories, and there’s no explicit sex; most stories don’t have sexual content as such. The exception is Lawrence Watt- Evans’ “The Guardswoman,” whose heroine finally becomes “one of the boys” when she’s able to join her male colleagues in traipsing to the local brothel for sex (she falls into an affair with the male bouncer). But in general, the other sword-wielding ladies in this book display high morals — they respect themselves, and insist on being respected.

Editor: Esther Friesner
Publisher: Baen, available through Amazon, currently only as a print book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Avengers Grimm

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“Once Upon an Enchanted Time.”

Avengers-GrimmI don’t mind The Asylum studio at all. They are notorious for churning out their “mockbusters” – low-budget, similarly-titled movies intended to cash in on a bigger budget film’s publicity e.g. Transmorphers. And, let’s be honest, most of those do suck. However, they have achieved some renown for cheerfully silly creature features, the best-known of which is the Sharknado series. [Though in our house, we worship at a shrine to Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, starring those titans of 80’s bubblegum pop, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.] Avengers Grimm occupies an odd middle territory: while its title is clearly intended to be riding the coat-tails of Avengers: Age of Ultron, yet a more accurate mockbuster title would be the one given above. The sole reference justifying the A word is when one character says, to no particular purpose, “We’re not heroes, we’re avengers.” Marvel’s legal department would probably beg to differ there.

For this is actually about the crossing over into the modern world of fairy-tale characters. The villain here is Rumpelstiltskin (Van Dien), who hijacks the magic mirror belonging to Snow White (Parkinson) since it can – an ability inexplicably omitted by the Brothers Grimm – act as a portal to our own, magic-free universe. He travels through dragging her with him, and by the time Snow’s princess posse catch up, he has become mayor of Los Angeles, because time flows at a different rate here. He is creating an army of “thralls,” mind-controlled minions that will do his bidding and allow him to expand his realm from a city to much further, and must be stopped. While Snow is trying to do just that, the arrival of her allies poses a problem, as they bring with them the last fragment of the mirror: it can be used to return to their world, or allow Rumpelstiltskin’s pals to join him. Making matters worse, he has enlisted the help of Iron John (Lou Ferrigno) and turned him into an unstoppable killing machine to hunt down the princesses.

This is as much an exercise in limiting expectations. Do not expect anything to do with Marvel, and instead something that’s an energetically low-budget riff on Once Upon a Time crossed with Enchanted, and you’ll be about there. There are probably a couple of princesses too many: outside of Snow, only Red Riding Hood (Peteron) and Rapunzel (Vanderbilt) made much impression, the latter swinging her weighted hair around like an offensively-coiffeured version of GoGo Yubari. There’s a nice subplot which has Red more or less going on her own mission, to take down the big, bad Wolf – one of Rumpel’s sidekicks – because he killed her parents. That’s the kind of inventive storytelling we could have used more of, or perhaps showing how the princesses adjust to modern life, which seems to happen with little more than a flick through a fashion magazine. However, Van Dien and Ferrigno make good foils for the ladies (many of whom come from Team Unicorn), and there are adequate quantities of princess ass-kicking. I was adequately entertained: and that’s more than can be said for my short-lived attempt to watch Once Upon a Time. This is a case where, as far as I’m concerned, the mockbuster tag probably does the film more harm than good.

Dir: Jeremy M. Inman
Star: Lauren Parkinson, Casper Van Dien, Elizabeth Peterson, Rileah Vanderbilt

Lady Ninja Kasumi, Volume 1

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“Godfrey Ho nods approvingly.”

LadninI’ve endured enough of these that I get the increasing feeling they are cranked out on a Japanese assembly-line somewhere, for they seem to have the same elements, right down to the title, which involves a random combination of words such as Assassin, Female, Geisha, Girl, Lady, Ninja and Woman. Get some porn actress, whose talents are neither in acting nor in martial arts, a few robes and some samurai swords, then have everyone run around some generic but potentially “historical” location, such as a forest. You’ll want a lot of sitting around chatting, since that’s particularly easy to film, and sprinkle lightly in mediocre sword-play. Intersperse the story with lengthy sex scenes every 15 minutes or so. Package in a non-descript sleeve that promises more than it can ever deliver. Release. Profit.

Because this kind of dubious excuse for a movie is incredibly cheap to make, and it seems there’s an endless appetite for them, both in the West and (presumably) in Japan – much like any old cack with a zombie in it will currently get a release here. I watch them so you don’t have to. Trust me, there are times when this site is a chore, not a pleasure. This theory isn’t inviolate: Geisha Assassin is actually pretty good. Lady Ninja Kasumi, on the other hand, possesses absolutely nothing to separate it from all the other sword-wielding soft-porn which has strayed across my disinterested eyeballs in the past.

The heroine is Kasumi (Young-mi), who became a ninja in order to protect her little brother, Kotaro. She’s sent on a mission to spy on a nearby clan, and defeats a member of their Hakuga squad, run by the Itagaki brothers. Injured in the process, she is nursed back to health by a friendly medicine-peddler. However, the other Itagaki brothers are keen to get their hands on the ninja responsible for their colleague’s death and… Well, let’s be honest, it was at roughly this point that my interest vanished over the event horizon, sucked in by this low-rent combination of clunky cinema, bad fight scenes and tedious humping. I think there was something about another, freelance female ninja, and an assassin who could disguise himself as a small child, which I guess deserves half a star for sheer novelty.  There are times I feel guilty about not giving a film my full attention. This is not one of those occasions. The first in a series which runs at least five volumes, possibly as many as eight – needless to say, I won’t bothering with the others.

Dir: Hiroyuki Kawasaki
Star: Young-mi, Saki Anz, Yui Mamiya, Hideki Satô

Lady Deception, by Bobbi Smith

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

LADY DECEPTIONThis is another book I got for my wife, because I felt the pistol-packing cowgirl on the cover would appeal to her, and then read on her recommendation. It’s even more of a departure from my usual reading fare, since it isn’t only a Western, but a paperback romance as well. Set mainly in Texas in 1877, the title refers to the heroine’s penchant for using disguise and deception in her work; she’s a bounty hunter with a reputation for bringing in her quarry alive. The leading male character is an ex-gunfighter recently turned rancher, who’s mistakenly accused of complicity in a bank robbery; she’s hired to bring him in alive.

Smith’s prose style could use polishing, and often lacks artistry; scenes often aren’t sketched with much sensory detail, and many of the characters are not sharply drawn. However, the plot moves with several inventive twists and turns that enhance reader interest, and Smith even incorporates a bit of mystery, in the hidden identity of the shadowy outlaw chieftain El Diabloto. (Astute readers will guess this early on –but trying to guess the solution to a mystery is part of its fun.) Cody and Luke are both appealing characters whom the reader can readily like and respect. Despite their human foibles (see the note below), to the extent that the book presents any moral messages, they’re generally wholesome ones, and even religious ones in places. One of our heroine’s guises is as a lady preacher; her preaching definitely presents a theistic and moral world-view, with a call to repentance and a recognition of the possibility of forgiveness and grace, and she has a positive effect on some characters’ lives. (Granted, to some degree she’s playing a role here –but it’s not a role that’s wholly foreign to her.) Western-style gun-fighting action isn’t pervasive in the book, but there’s some of it; and Cody will earn Luke’s recognition that she’s “good with a gun.”

Note: There are a couple of explicit unmarried sex scenes here, and a certain amount of bad language, of the h- and d-word type.

Author: Bobbi Smith
Publisher: Montlake Romance, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.