Julia

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“As therapy, beats ice-cream and a copy of The Notebook.”

juliaPainfully shy doctor’s assistant Julia (Williams) is drugged and raped by a group of young men, but is too traumatized to report the crime to the authorities. Sitting alone in a corner of a bar one night, she overhears another woman, Sadie (Tozzi), talking about a radical therapy regime, that allows women to reclaim their self-esteem and power. Eventually talking Sadie into referring her to Doctor Sgundud (Noseworthy) who, after discovering Julia is a suitable case for treatment, allows Sadie to mentor Julia in the system. This involves seducing men, and then punishing them for their lechery. However, Sgundud’s therapy comes with strict rules against taking personal action against those who abused you: rejoicing in her new=found power, Julia is not so keen on abiding by such apparently arbitrary restrictions, especially coming from a mere man. But the doctor wasn’t kidding, when he warned her of the severe consequences for not following the rules.

Initially intriguing, the film becomes more problematic as it goes on, both morally and cinematically. By “flirty fishing” for men who have done little if anything wrong, and then punishing them, Julia has moved from abused to abuser, and the movie doesn’t succeed in bringing the audience over the line with her, and any sympathy for her is largely lost as a result, well before she ever gets round to confronting those actually responsible for the attack. Nor does the film appear to know what to do once it gets there, suddenly shifting focus so that Dr. Sgundud becomes the Big Bad, though we know little about him or his background, beyond that he seems to enjoy manipulating the easily manipulated. On the plus side, the film looks luscious, depicting a New York saturated in neon and rain, like some kind of nightmarish car commercial. As the lead, Williams (previously seen on all fours in the first part of Human Centipede) is solid enough in terms of her transformation from self-harming wallflower into avenging succubus.

However, she doesn’t bring enough personality to the role to make it memorable. Compare and contrast, say, the similarly-themed (and equally problematic, in different ways) American Mary, in which Katherine Isabelle had a far greater impact. Or Nurse 3D – also with a medical professional character – where Paz de la Huerta went over the top, dragging the viewer with her – kicking and screaming if necessary. Campbell appears to be aiming for low-key, yet ends up closer to flat-line, and I found myself tuning out in the second half as a result. While even-handed in its depiction of the sexual violence, with one scene certainly likely to have male viewers crossing their legs, there’s otherwise just not enough impact. When you’re going down a well-worn path, you either need to travel it extremely well, or take an interesting diversion, and sadly, this does neither.

Dir: Matthew A. Brown
Star: Ashley C. Williams, Tahyna Tozzi, Jack Noseworthy, Joel de la Fuente

Big Driver

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“Lady Vengeance”

bigdriverEasily punching above its weight for a Lifetime TVM, this is as disturbing as you’d expect from the director of the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, working off a Stephen King short story. Crime writer Tess Thorne (Bello) is on her way back from a speaking engagement, when her car gets a puncture; the large gentleman (Harris) who stops to help, turns out to be a savage rapist, who brutalizes Tess repeatedly, before leaving her for dead in a storm-drain, beside his previous victims. Tess survives, but is traumatized by the experience, and won’t tell anyone what happened. Her mind begins to fracture, with the leading character in her book (Dukakis) coming to life and talking to her – as well as the GPS in her car (not credited, but reportedly the voice of King). Digging in, Tess finds that her accident may not have been quite as accidental as she thought, and her quest for vengeance, is going to require a broader net than she initially thought.

It’s the performances which make this work, though the concept is solid enough, containing a number of elements readily identifiable as King staples, e.g. dead people talking. The translation to screen does have its issues; never explained, for example, is how Tess’s disabled car shows up in the parking lot of a biker bar, fully intact and with her possessions inside. Much though the resulting cameo from 80’s rocker Joan Jett is welcome,, it’s a blatant plot hole which should have been addressed. That aside, it’s much grittier than I expected, with the assault in particular pulling so few punches, I have to wonder if the version which played on Lifetime was edited for content compared to this DVD release. Bello does a good job of taking the audience inside the disintegrating mind of Thorne, to the point where we genuinely wondered how much of what we were seeing had a basis in reality, or if it was just a psychological coping mechanism. Dukakis is also excellent, providing a restrained, yet sarcastic counterpoint of commentary to the heroine’s actions, as she falls apart, yet still proceeds with her mission.

Things proceed to a thoroughly adequate conclusion, even allowing for the vast difference in size and strength between Tess and her assailant; if nothing else, guns are certainly a great equalizer! But Tess’s smarts are just as important as her aggression or lust for vengeance, helping her both uncover the truth about what happened, and then ensure that the police don’t track her down after the event. The traumatic experience certainly leaves her a changed person, and probably only right it should; not a journey I’d want anyone I know to experience themselves, but it may indeed be a case of, what does not kill you, makes you stronger.

Dir: Mikael Salomon
Star: Maria Bello, Will Harris, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen King

The Bandit of Hell’s Bend, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

banditBorn in 1875, as a youth Burroughs actually spent time working as a cowboy on a 19th-century Western ranch owned by his brother. Though that was in Idaho, while this novel is set in Arizona, his knowledge of basic ranch life and Western conditions in the frontier era was firsthand; and the descriptions here suggest that he had some personal familiarity with the landscape of the Southwest as well. So in this novel, he was following the axiomatic advice for authors, “Write about what you know.” His main weakness in much of his work, his disdain for research, is therefore largely moot here, while his main strengths –an ability to deliver adventurous plots and stirring depictions of action, creation of strong heroes who embody what are traditionally thought of as “masculine” virtues, moral clarity, and a masterful evocation of the theme of “primitivism” that can appeal to repressed and regimented readers– are undiminished. I’m not typically a Western fan, because I think modern examples of the genre too often degenerate into cliché.’ But the early Westerns produced by the writers of Burrough’s generation (which also included Zane Grey, whose influence I recognize here) preceded the modern cliches,’ and possess a more original quality –even if some of the tropes were beaten to death by later writers.

In 1880s Arizona, the inhabitants of the Bar-Y Ranch and neighboring Hendersville have to contend with occasional lethal Apache attacks, and the stage carrying bullion from Elias Henders’ mine is being held up with disconcerting regularity. Local suspicion pegs the principal masked culprit as Bar-Y cowboy Bull –but is local suspicion correct? And the plot will soon thicken, because both ranch and mine will face a suave menace that fights with the machinery of the law rather than with guns and tomahawks. The storyline is genuinely exciting, with a strong narrative drive that kept me eagerly turning pages to see what would happen next, with an element of mystery. (I guessed the culprit’s identity before the denouement, but I didn’t foresee everything that would happen.) Burroughs also understood that romance doesn’t need to be sappy to be romantic. There’s a well-drawn theme of conflict here between the effete, over-civilized, arrogant East that fights through dishonesty and wants to take from others (and the West that Burroughs saw was in many ways an oppressed colony of the U.S.-European industrialized world, as much as the hapless peoples of Asia and Africa were) vs. the primal, strong, down-to-earth West whose people look you in the eye and fight for what’s theirs

Burroughs has created a hero and heroine that you strongly care about, and want to see come through their jeopardy. Bull is more flawed than some Burrough’s heroes, because he has to struggle with a bit of an alcohol addiction; but that doesn’t diminish him for me –he’s a human being, with some human weakness as well as strength. Diana Henders is not a weak hot-house flower who functions solely as a damsel in distress –like any of us, she may find herself in need of a rescue sometime, but not through any weakness or incompetence on her part; and she’s also ready to do some rescuing herself when it’s needed. Of any of the Burroughs heroines I’ve encountered –and that’s been several– she’s the one I like the best, and that I find to be the most sharply-drawn, and most possessed of leadership and heroic qualities. (She’s an intelligent, likeable girl who enjoys reading and playing her piano. If you’re attacked by an Apache war party bent on ending your life, you’d also find her a very capable and cool-headed ally to have at your side with her Colt.) Some of the secondary characters here also come across as more vivid and lifelike than is usual for this writer, IMO.

Like other regional writers of his day, Burroughs was careful to reproduce authentic dialect in the character’s speech, indicated by unconventional spellings that reflect the pronunciations, not only of Western cowboy patois, but of a thick Irish brogue and a Chinese accent as well. This isn’t done to ridicule anyone; indeed, some characters who exhibit each of these speech patterns prove to be very sympathetic.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping, in that Wong the cook is knowledgeable about poisons, and an opium user (of course, a fair number of 19th-century Chinese were opium users –not very surprisingly, since the British promoted the opium trade, and forced it on China in two wars!) and there’s no real attempt to understand or present the Apache viewpoint. (Though even if their basic grievances are just and legitimate, when they’re attacking with the intention of killing you, fighting back IS your only short-range option.) But the only real villains here are white. And while Bull’s comment, “Thet greaser’s whiter’n some white men,” is phrased in racist terms, the insight he’s experiencing is subversive of racism. (“Greaser” is an ethnic slur some characters use for the Hispanic character, but he thinks of Anglos as “gringos” with just as little authorial censure; I think Burroughs here is only reflecting the common parlance of the day, as with his dialect speech. When Wong is referred to as an “insolent Chink,” it’s by a creep whom the reader readily recognizes as Wong’s inferior.)

My rating of four stars rather than five was for a very few logical slips in details, and for a few glossed-over points where plot developments were a tad dubious, IMO. But those are quibbles; this was a really good read, for any Western and/or action adventure fan!

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Publisher: Both Ace Books and CreateSpace, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Spy

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“Girls with guns and buns?”

spyIf not perhaps your prototypical action heroine, this is a thoroughly amusing and very entertaining feature, managing both to spoof and pay homage to the entire genre of its title. Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is really good at her job, which is being a support analyst for the CIA’s top agent, Bradley Fine (Law). He is gunned down while on the trail of a stolen nuclear warhead, by the evil Rayna Boyanov (Byrne), who also knows the identity of all the agency’s other field agents. Susan, who has been behind a desk her whole career, so is unknown to the outside world, convinces her boss she should go after Rayna, much to the disgust of Fine’s colleague, Rick Ford (Statham). What is supposed to be an “observe and report” mission becomes more, after Cooper saves Boyanov’s line and becomes part of her inner circle, giving her a chance to find the location of the missing bomb, yet also putting Susan in grave danger.

I’ve seen McCarthy before, most notably enduring (thanks, Chris!) Bridesmaids, where she seemed a bit of a one-note actress: “It’s funny, ‘cos I’m big.” I was expecting much the same here, with not much more than two hours of fat jokes. However, on the basis of this, I was wrong; just as Peter Dinklage is an actor who happens to be short, so it appears McCarthy is an actress who happens to be large. For instance, at one point, she has to pretend to be a bodyguard assigned to take care of Rayna by her father. She nails it, spitting out lines such as, “I’m gong to reach through your fucking body and rip out your back like a fucking werewolf” [yeah, it’s gleefully R-rated for language] with such a remarkable degree of badass commitment, that she is entirely convincing as such. Hell, there’s even a brawl in a kitchen, whee Cooper goes up against an assassin sent after Boyanov, which is remarkably solid [and makes sense, because it was set up earlier, when we see a video of Cooper during her training where she showed similar skills]. Implausible? Well, not if you’ve ever seen Sammo Hung in action.

Beyond McCarthy, what particularly elevates this is a slew of excellent supporting performances. While Byrne chews the scenery to very good effect as a villainess, it’s Statham and Hart who steal just about every scene they are in. Statham is, more or less, parodying every other role he has had, spinning utterly implausible tall tales of his derring-do, e.g. “I’m immune to 179 different types of poison. I know because I ingested them all at once when I was deep undercover in an underground poison-ingesting crime ring.” Hart, we have known and loved for some time due to her BBC show, Miranda, and she plays much the same delightfully klutzy, self-effacing persona here, to the extent we suspect she probably wrote her own dialogue. This trio form a solid foundation, off which McCarthy can bounce her personas, to excellent effect, and I’m now rather more confident in Feig’s upcoming reboot of Ghostbusters. The female cast there did initially seem more than a tad stunty, but on the basis of this, he and McCarthy would seem to have a decent shot at pulling it off. A very pleasant surprise, on a number of levels.

Dir: Paul Feig
Star: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Miranda Hart

Return to Sender

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“Deadlier than the mail”

Return_to_SenderPike seems to have been teetering on the edge of action-heroineness since she first reached popular attention as Bond girl Miranda Frost, in Die Another Day, thence through the likes of Queen Andromeda in Wrath of the Titans, and her upcoming portrayal of an undercover CIA agent in High Wire Act. With her star also on the rise for her Oscar-nominated performance in Gone Girl, one wonders whether such mainstream fare will become “beneath her”? If so, this may be among her final stops of at least tangential appeal, and with her character the focus of attention, the only one which reached the necessary threshold to qualify for inclusion on this site. Here, she plays Miranda, the victim of a brutal rape, whose orderly life is destroyed by the assault, yet who begins a long-distance relationship with her attacker (Fernandez). She claims this is a necessary part of the healing process, much to the disgust of her father (Nolte), who is concerned his daughter may be suffering from some variant of Stockholm Syndrome. However, are Miranda’s intentions quite as forgiving as they appear?

The existence of this review likely gives away the answer to that question, though the poster on the right (a Finnish one, emphasizing an element found in other publicity material) isn’t exactly avoiding the issue. And that’s the problem: the middle portion here, between the attack and the pay-off, more or less operates in a holding pattern, with the audience largely aware of where it’s going, yet the script still needs to put in the legwork to make its payoff credible. I can’t say it succeeds, leaning heavily on the fact that her attacker is a complete idiot, and like many rape-revenge films, also relies on the conceit that many rapists will have no problem hanging out with their victims after the event. I’ve no idea whether there is any psychological basis for fact in this, or if it’s just a convenient plot nicety. The other aspect which is kinda weird, is that Miranda isn’t actually a very nice person; a bit of a control-freak in many aspects of her life, and her lack of meaningful relationships is entirely unsurprising.

Between this and her subsequent actions, it appears the only reason the audience is given to care about her, is because she gets raped. Wait, what? I suppose the point might be, to show that sexual assault does not only happen to “nice” girls, but we’re not talking about a sociological study here. This is a work of fiction, and if you’re going to focus on a character with whom the audience is given no good reason to empathize, the film-makers had better be damn sure of their ground. Here, neither Mikati nor the writers are, even if Pike’s performance is decent, showing why I think she has potential as an action-heroine. This is left to operate in a vacuum, resulting in perhaps only the final 15-20 minutes achieving any degree of impact, and this is still muted, since you don’t care enough about anyone involved. Nowhere near as provocative or powerful as this needed to be.

Dir: Faoud Mikati
Star: Rosamund Pike, Shiloh Fernandez, Nick Nolte, Camryn Manheim

The Strong One, by David Wittlinger

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

Full disclosure at the outset: David Wittlinger and I are Goodreads friends, and in a couple of Goodreads groups together. Despite some off-putting aspects of the book description, I was impressed by his attitude toward his writing, as expressed in his comments in these groups; so I wound up accepting his offer of a free e-review copy. (As yet, there is no print edition.)

strongoneProtagonist Brianna is a young ex-stripper who’s now the live-in girlfriend of tough thug Wade, the shady bouncer at the mob-connected Cleveland strip club where she used to work. Brianna sees herself as pretty worthless, and doesn’t expect to be loved; but she doesn’t know that Wade is secretly video-recording their sexual encounters, and that he’s done this to other girls as well. When she accidentally makes that discovery and he finds out she knows, he chokes her half to death, and locks up her car keys so she can’t escape when he’s called away temporarily. But he’s underestimated her resourcefulness, and she manages to escape with her car, his laptop (and its sexual contents), a bag of his cash and his revolver, which she’s grabbed for her protection though she’s never held a gun before. Since he wants that computer back badly, and has a vengeful disposition and a long reach, she’s in for a dangerous time.

Readers definitely need to be warned here about sexual content and bad language. We get a look into the ugly world of the porn industry, with some graphic descriptions of porn videos. We also have a couple of explicit sex scenes outside the porn context. Brianna’s had a terrible upbringing that no child and teen should have to endure (but which huge numbers DO endure, in real life!), and her sexual attitudes are wildly misguided, at several levels, IMO –and I don’t think the author would disagree. (Related to her view of herself as worthless, for instance, she likes being spanked, having her hair pulled and being called a “slut” during sexual activity.) That kind of thing doesn’t make for pleasant reading. She also has, as another character observes, “a mouth like a sailor;” she uses the f-word a lot (as, she points out, everyone else in her world does as well) with some other bad language and occasional religious profanity, and we hear the same speaking style from Wade and his low-life associates..

None of this material, though, is gratuitous. The author has immersed us in Brianna’s world to provide a realistic picture of what it’s like –not to promote it, but to give us the motivation to change it. The immersion is graphic; more graphic than I’d have made it, but that doesn’t mean the author’s decision was wrong. He’s created Brianna as a fully-fleshed, realistic person and given her the freedom to be who she is, warts and all, as he shares with us the story of her personal growth, which is the core theme of this novel. (And like any baby learning to walk, she’s going to have to crawl first.) For me, this book earned its stars in the degree of artistic and moral integrity the author showed in handling difficult material; in the quality of his character development, in the strength of his message of growth and empowerment, and in the degree of complex emotional engagement with the characters that he was able to evoke. (A day after reading it, I was still sorting my emotions out!)

Wittlinger writes with a great deal of craftsmanship –not just for a first novelist, but for any novelist. His plot is tight and linear, ably constructed. Violent action doesn’t occupy relatively much of the text (though when it happens, it’s gripping, intense, and nail-biting); the stress is more on character development and human relationship. (I considered this a plus.) Nonetheless, there’s a high degree of suspense throughout; and the author’s particularly adept in heightning it by cliffhanger chapter divisions and changes of viewpoint character between chapters. His level of description and detail is, as Goldilocks might have said, “just right,” and he makes adroit use of symbolism in places. The western Pennsylvania Appalachian setting is brought to life very nicely (I passed through the region once, so have some personal acquaintance with it). Both Brianna and Brandon are living, breathing characters you like in spite of their faults. And the ending is one that’s particularly powerful, evocative and gut-wrenching –but no spoilers here!

Like many self-published novels, this one was only proofread by the author before being published (and most authors will agree that it’s hard to effectively proofread your own work). I promised him I’d proofread this one, and was able to identify a number of minor typos and editorial issues, which will be corrected later. But these didn’t interfere with my understanding of the text, or ability to read it easily.

The Strong One is the first novel of a projected series. I’m now invested in Brianna, and interested in watching her future growth!

Note: As mentioned above, readers should be STRONGLY warned about explicit sexual content and bad language issues. (The book earned its stars in spite of, not because of, these factors.)

Author: David Wittlinger
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, currently only as an e-book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Red Detachment of Women

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“Carry out land reform!” and other popular Marxist refrains…

reddetachmentThis takes place in 1930, when the Communist revolution was really just getting under way, and Hainan, now the very southernmost part of China, was a hotbed of subversive activity. Wu Qionghua (Zhu) is a virtual slave, who had made frequent attempts to run away from her master, Nan Batian, but has always been caught. She is rescued by a kindly merchant, Hong Changqing (Wang) who is visiting her master and takes Qionghua into his service – as soon as they leave, he frees her, because it turns out he is an undercover operative for the Communists. Qionghua, filled with new-found political aspirations, heads for a nearby village where the Red Army is forming its first women’s army, linking up on the way with another member of the oppressed proletariat, Fu Honglian (Xiang). There, she convinces the commander of her earnest intentions and gets to join. However, her lust for personal revenge on Nan clouds her judgment as a soldier, and potentially puts her life at risk She will need to suppress her own desires – both for vengeance and for Hong – in the interests of the greater good and the Communist uprising.

A little reminiscent of The Forty-First, the big difference is that it built the characters first, and worked any political messages around them, rather than turning the actors into machines for spouting revolutionary polemic. Here, there are times when what comes out of Qionghua’s mouth appears to be straight out of the Little Red Book, which is quite off-putting. It could be down to poor translation in the subs, but considering she is supposed to be a peasant girl, and presumably uneducated, lines such as “Could you tell me why Secretary Changqing and our company commander are more knowledgeable and farsighted? Because they are communists?” are not exactly convincing. Nor are “spontaneous” chants of “Down with feudal rule! Carry out land reform! Overturn the feudal system!” Maybe audiences in sixties China needed to be whacked over the head; I’ve always found propaganda to be most effective when its subtle, and this isn’t. I occasionally expected scenes to finish with a Starship Troopers-esque caption: “Do you want to know more?”

But say what you like about communism – and “It’s a political system which is okay in theory, but a miserable failure in practice” would be close to my own view there – it has done a lot more than capitalism in embracing the GWG as part of culture. We already documented the Soviet approach in WW2, and here, the women’s army is not regarded as second-class soldiers in any way, and are portrayed the equals of their male counterparts, which is certainly laudable. Shame the battles themselves are a bit crap, with the running-dog reactionary lackeys hardly putting up a fight, save for one decent sequence where Wu’s platoon has to hold off an advancing surge by the opposition, while sustaining brutal losses. The same novel subsequently became a ballet: that might be slightly less heavy-handed with the propaganda, though I wouldn’t guarantee it!

Dir: Xie Jin
Star: Zhu Xijuan, Wang Xingang, Xiang Mei, Jin Naihua

Danger Dolls

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“Fringe with fringes”

dangerdollsAn interesting alternate universe here, diverging at the end of World War II, where the horrific results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki triggered the world into abandoning, first, nuclear weapons and then eventually, all guns as well. In the present day, crime still exists, but it largely consists of people holding up banks with swords, for example. However, trouble lurks in this gun-free paradise, in the form of a parallel universe, which appears to have designs on ours, and is sending people through a wormhole, and replacing the ones on this side with the aim of establishing a bridgehead. Countering this threat are the titular quartet, led by Arisa (Hanai), who have the martial-arts skills to counter these “filthy invaders”, and can also see the blue glow which identifies natives from another dimension.

After successfully destroying five political figures who had taken the place of their counterparts on this side, things get more complex, with the next mission being to infiltrate a country retreat belonging to that political party, a venue recently visited by all five dimensional visitors. It’s decided by their boss that the girls will go under cover as an all-girl group of pop stars – the i.Dolls – using a tour as disguise for their activities, on the basis no-one will pay attention to a bunch of idol singers. Yeah. Not perhaps the soundest decision making ever, that. Exploring the ground, they find what looks like the innocent gateway to a Shinto shrine, only to discover it is actually cover for the wormhole. Confusing matters further, the parallel version of Arisa comes through from the other side where it turns out that she and the other three – hey, what are the odds? – actually are members of an all-girl group. This Arisa discovers that things are not quite as cut and dried as they seem, and that even their own origins may be other than they believe.

It’s likely a case where less plot would be more – and fewer Danger Dolls would probably be a better idea too. For as is, beyond Arisa and Ray (Takeda), there’s precious little characterization to be found for Miki and Mari, whose sole purpose for existing seems to be to justify the idol singer thing, because a singing duo would seem a bit crap. The action sequences are spottily impressive. It’s clear Takeda is head and shoulders above the others in terms of ability, though Hanai has her moments, and there are some nice moves. The most spectacular of these are apparently inspired by lucha libre, leaving me suitably impressed, and the lack of doubling and wire-work was also quite laudable. However, the need to slice up the screen time between four protagonists does leave the battles feeling choppy, and it’s only once the herd is thinned at the end – I’ll say no more – that proceedings achieve the necessary fluidity. There’s no doubt Takeda still has star potential; as with her earlier movies, however, this vehicle for her talent falls short of its main ingredient.

Dir: Shûsuke Kaneko
Star: Rumi Hanai, Rina Takeda, Kayano Masuyama, Nana Seino

Sword and Sorceress XIX, edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: Variable

swordandsorceress19Although the late Bradley (d. 1999) is credited as “editor” of this volume of the series, it’s really the second of three that were made from the pile of manuscripts submitted before her death, and actually edited by her sister-in-law, Elisabeth Waters. It continues a trend I noticed in Sword and Sorceress XVII,: much more emphasis on the sorcery half of the sword-and-sorcery equation. Out of 25 tales here, 20 have heroines who are magic users; only six feature swordswomen (one protagonist is both), and two of the latter don’t do any actual fighting in their stories. (Of course, magic-wielding heroines may be fighters too, in their own way!) Other trends that I noticed here were a number of stories treating real-world or imagined pagan pantheons as real, frequent use of various historic world cultures (ancient Egypt, the Hellenistic world, 10th-century Britain, etc.) as settings or models for invented settings, and several coming-of-age stories. While I enjoyed the vast majority of the selections here, I felt that this volume didn’t have as high a number of really outstanding stories as previous series volumes that I’ve read, so it’s the first of the latter not to get five stars from me. (But four is still a high rating!) Five of the writers represented are males, about the average proportion for this series.

Bradley had instituted a by-invitation-only policy for submissions before she died, but had invited everyone who’d previously contributed to the series. So all of the contributors here have been represented in previous volumes, though some are new to me (I haven’t read all of the previous numbers) and some who aren’t are writers whose names I’ve forgotten. Those whose work I’ve definitely read before include Diana Paxson, Esther Friesner, Bunnie Bessel, and Dorothy Heydt (whose daughter also has a story here).

When I encountered Heydt’s ancient Greek sorceress, Cynthia, in Sword and Sorceress XVII, I made the comment in my review that she might be a series character. That’s confirmed here in “Lord of the Earth;” but that story has so much allusion to back-story that it loses a lot for readers who haven’t followed the character through the whole story cycle. Paxson’s “The Sign of the Boar” is a sequel to “Lady of Flame” from the same earlier volume; but here, her considerable talent is disappointingly wasted on a story mainly intended to disparage Christians. “A Simple Spell” by Marilyn A. Racette is a very slight story, which (at least for this reader) failed to make much impression. In her brief intro to A. Hall’s “Sylvia,” Waters notes that she wanted to close the volume with something “short and funny.” It’s quite short, and has a mordant black humor in its conclusion; but it’s really more tragic than funny if you think about it (and definitely makes the point that, when you try to gain your ends by sneaky and manipulative means instead of honesty, the results may not be what you bargained for).

Those are the weaker stories, but I’d rate all of the rest with at least three stars, and often more. Set in a land ruled by queens chosen by a magic-endued sword, Bessel’s “Sword of Queens” is the one five-star work here; it has the emotional and psychological complexity and power of the series’ best tales. Laura J. Underwood’s Scottish-flavored “The Curse of Ardal Glen” is a standout among the serious stories, and Aimee Kratts “One in Ten Thousand” has both an unusual setting (ancient Egypt) and a very original magic system.

Humorous fantasy is represented here fairly often. “Pride, Prejudice and Paranoia’ by Michael Spence is perhaps the best of these; it’s a sequel to “Salt and Sorcery,” which he co-wrote with Waters for an earlier volume, and is set in a magic school (despite the title, it’s set in the present, not Regency England). It would be most appreciated by those who’ve read the first story (which I haven’t, but want to!), but can delight even those that haven’t. The evocation of a graduate school environment is spot-on (Spence was a seminary student when he wrote it), the family dynamics are precious, and there’s a good, subtle message. “A Little Magic” by P. E. (Patricia Elizabeth) Cunningham and “Eloma’s Second Career” by Lorie Calkins are also fine examples of fantasy in a humorous vein; the latter will be especially appealing to ladies of a certain age whose family is raised and who are ready to take on new challenges instead of sitting around and vegetating. (Though their new challenges probably won’t include training to be a sorceress.)

Not a humorous tale, Deborah Burros dark “Artistic License” also deserves mention; it’s a tale of murder and deadly sorcery (but not all murders evoke quite the same moral indignation). This doesn’t mention all of the stories, but at least it should provide prospective readers with something of the flavor of the collection!

Editors: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Elisabeth Waters
Publisher: DAW, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The World Before Her

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“Beauties and the beasts?”

worldbeforeherI love the double meaning of the title, which could mean either, “the world in front of her” or “the world of the past”. Both would be appropriate for the this documentary, which focuses on two contradictory and opposite facets of modern Indian culture, though both are redefining the ways in which women are portrayed. On the one hand, you have Ruhi Singh, a participant in the Miss India contest. In India, beauty pageants seem to have an unexpectedly feminist position, in contrast to how they are often seen in the west, as “cattle markets”; it’s pointed out, beauty is one of the few areas in Indian society where women and their opinions are seen as the equals of men. Then there is Prachi Trivedi, a young woman and fervent Hindu nationalist, fighting against exactly that kind of decadent Western culture, training with the Durga Vahini, the woman’s wing of a group that has been described as neo-terrorist in nature, and who protested against Miss World when the contest came to India in 1996.

The contrast between the two is certainly stark: Singh is elegant, clearly modern in outlook and does not believe foreign culture poses any threat to India. Trivedi, on the other hand, eschews make-up, years for a past unsullied by modern culture, and regards both Christians and Muslims as the enemy [as one training camp attendee puts it, in a thinly-veiled threat, “We have learned to use guns and we’ll use them if we have to. We will kill people if we need to”]. Yet, she rebels against her father’s beliefs that a woman’s first – indeed, sole – duty is marriage and having children, and readily acknowledges the inherent contradiction in being devoted to an organization that is intent on continuing to repress her. The film appears to be saying that the two are not too different in nature, sharing an independent streak – under other circumstances (and, probably, a makeover for Prachi), perhaps could be friends.

However, I’m not sure the film has too much more to say than that. It certainly doesn’t have anything new to add about the beauty pageant aspects, in part because Ruhi is fairly guarded and self-aware of her image, reluctant to commit to too much. This is not an issue for Prachi and her friends, who seem happy to speak candidly, not apparently caring about any potential reaction to soundbites such as, ‘Frankly, I hate Gandhi’. Personally, I found this made her a much more interesting character, compared to the pretty but bland Singh. About the sole startling revelation on this side of the cinematic equation was an almost casual admission that one contestant was almost aborted after her parents found out they were having a girl. Such is the contradiction of contemporary India, a society that in some ways is forging ahead, yet in others remains rooted in the past. The tension between these aspects has the potential to cause enormous issues as the country moves in to the future.

Dir: Nisha Pahuja