Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon


“That is the beauty of being a soldier. Right there in that moment with your rifle propped up against the dirt, knowing that even if you don’t get to be the guy up at the front shooting, you have a sector that is yours and you know in your heart you will shoot any enemy that comes into it. That’s how simple it is.”
— Kate Raimann, CST

North Carolina National Guard Follow 1LT Ashley White-Stumpf 1st Lt. Ashley White, 24, was assigned to the 230th Brigade Support Battalion, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, North Carolina National Guard, Goldsboro, N.C., and attached to a joint special operations task force as a Cultural Support Team member. She was killed October 22, 2011, during combat operations when the assault force triggered an improvised explosive device near Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (Photo via U.S. Army Special Operations Command)While operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army realized there was a gap in their operation. The entirely masculine nature of their forces hampered intelligence gathering because male soldiers were unable to work effectively with the women and children present on the ground, a result of a culture which severely restricts inter-gender interaction. This was potentially lethal, as the women could also be used hide weapons and explosive. To address this, in 2010 a forward thinking group of the military sought to get around the archaic ban on women troops in combat situations, by creating Cultural Support Teams, formed of women who could accompany the special operations forces on their missions, officially in “support” roles, and question the women who were often the best informed with regard to the movements and actions of local insurgents.

The female soldiers selected for the task needed a particular set of skills – not least an unusual amount of physical fitness, since they would have to keep up in the field with the likes of Army Rangers. But they would also require “soft skills”, such as the ability to draw information from civilians quickly, by establishing a relationship of trust, while also being able to assess the information rapidly for accuracy. Despite the obvious risks and challenges, the program attracted interest from current members of the Army, National Guard and Reserves, intrigued by the possibilities and keen to be part of history. Lemmon tells the stories of a number of these women, going through the selection process and their training, then into their deployments. In particular, she looks at 1st Lt. Ashley White, a woman considered by those over her as “sweet enough to be a Disneyland greeter,” yet who became the first CST member killed in action, and who earned a place on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor, despite the lack of full official endorsement for her role at the time.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really do White and the other women justice, in part because you’re more than half way through before they’ve completed their training, which is probably the least interesting aspect of their stories. Lemmon’s style is placidly uninteresting too, and fails to paint a picture of the soldiers as individual characters; she may, perhaps, be trying to tell too many stories here, and especially early on, this results in a jumble of faces and names that fail to make much of an impression. Things do improve a fair bit once the women touch down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Lemmon does generate a good deal of tension telling the stories of their missions – typically in the dead of night – to help the Army Rangers hunt down and capture insurgents. Though, even here, I’d have liked to know more details of who they were targeting, let’s give the author the benefit of the doubt and say that operational security limited the amount of specifics that could be included.

The book doesn’t pull its punches in describing the events surrounding Ashley White’s death, and it’s a sobering reminder of the realities of war, especially a non-traditional one, against a fluid enemy, such as is the case here. You can literally be a step away from death; in this case, White’s translator moved away to adjust her night-vision goggles and so survived the IED blast which took the life of her comrade. Of such fragile choices can life sometimes tilt. But only sporadically does Lemmon capture this, or at the other end, the adrenalin rush eloquently expressed in the quote which starts this piece, and which does more to explain why people serve than hundreds of pages of mostly bland prose, as served up here.

Publisher: Harper, $15.99 (paperback) $14.99 (Kindle), available through Amazon


“More than a trick, yet just short of a treat.”

hellionsJust in time for Halloween comes this atmospherically and spooky tale, in which teenager Dora (Rose) has a day – and a night – to remember. It begins with her discovering that she’s pregnant, news which initially causes her to stay home and brood over her future. She changes her mind and texts her boyfriend to come pick her up; he never shows, and instead she finds herself increasingly tormented by young, masked figures, who repeatedly knock on her door. The doctor (Sutherland) makes a house call, only to discover Dora has gone from four weeks to four months pregnant in just a few hours. Dora is also being plagued by nightmarish visions sacrifice, and it becomes clear that those little figures have some very unpleasant plans for our heroine and her baby-to-be.

The religious symbolism here is not exactly subtle: Dora’s Halloween costume is that of an angel, and once you see one of the creatures dissolve when accidentally exposed to salt, it’s clear they’re from down below (well, clear if you’ve ever watched Supernatural, at least!). It’s an angle I’d like to have seen better explored. The script perhaps needs a Peter Cushing type, to pop up as Reverend Exposition and lay some groundwork, instead of forcing the audience to figure everything out on the fly, such as the rules to the occult universe this inhabity. What it does deliver, is atmosphere by the bucketload, with McDonald drenching the screen in every kind of filter imaginable, creating a world where you’re never sure what’s real, and what’s a product of Dora’s escalating and deranged imagination. It’s helped by a very creepy score from Todor Kobakov and Ian LeFeuvre, which takes the first four notes of Silent Night, and riffs on them to impressively unsettling Carpenter-esque effect.

There’s also something thoroughly striking about the image of a shotgun-wielding angel (as shown), even if the cartridges have been re-loaded with salt, and Rose makes for an engaging heroine, who manages to be smart, without toppling over into Juno-esque slappability. McDonald was also responsible for the off-kilter zombie film, Pontypool, and the film is at is best when Dora is engaged in an Assault on Precinct 13-style – again, more Carpenter – battle against the ongoing siege of the hellions, with the help (or is it?) of a local cop (Patrick). Unfortunately, the story can’t quite sustain that pace, and runs out of steam notably in the final reel, which brings us round to where the film started, with Dora waking up in hospital. You could do worse in terms of a choice for your own Halloween viewing than this; if not quite a full-size chocolate bar, it’s definitely better than a stale Tootsie Roll.

Dir: Bruce McDonald
Star: Chloe Rose, Robert Patrick, Rossif Sutherland, Rachel Wilson

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes

“Dungeons & Dragons. Without dungeons. Or dragons.”

mythicaI could virtually hear the d20s rolling for chunks of this one. Not to say that is a bad thing as such; it quite took me back to my college days, when I spent far more time than I should, lurking in the corners of the student union, trying to nurse my ferociously-toasted paladin through another death-trap! The heroine here is Marek (Stone), a slave with a club foot who has higher aspirations, dabbles in magic, and runs away from her master to seek her fame and fortune. She talks her way into a mission no other adventurer will accept, rescuing the sister of haughty high priestess Teela (Posener), who has been kidnapped by orcs, and adds a gruff fighter, Thane (Johnson), and sly thief Dagen (Stormoen) to complete the parade of obvious stereotypes, er, sorry, I meant to write “party of adventurers”. They head off to follow the orcs, only to find Teela’s sister is not there, and is apparently with a far bigger, more unpleasant monster, possessing a lot more hit points and higher armour-class.

All my cynicism (which you may just have been able to detect in the above) aside, I actually didn’t hate this, despite its horribly derivative nature and failure to deliver any kind of ending [it being the first in an intended three-part saga coughHobbitcough]. Far from it, actually: if painfully obvious, the characters are still fun to be around, and the actors embrace them with gusto, which help bring them to life. Marek, in particular, has the potential to have a good character arc, since she appears to possess occult talents, which are only scratched here, coming out in dire emergencies – conveniently for the story! She is disabled, but not defined by it. Save a couple of scenes, such as the one where she begs Teela’s to heal her,  it’s easy to forget her impediment, and there’s no doubting her courage, wits and loyalty, which make for a winning combination in a fantasy lead.

About the only name you’ll recognize here is Kevin Sorbo, who has basically one scene as Marek’s magical mentor, though I get the feeling he will be back in subsequent parts. Still, if you rent this expecting more based on the promotional material, you’ll be disappointed. Fortunately, I had no such preconceptions, and was able to enjoy what is, in many way, a throwback to the eighties and nineties when, it seems, there was a new one of these out every other time I went to the video-store. [Usually made in Argentina. For Roger Corman] If I can’t say I am anticipating future installments with breathless excitement, I can’t say I will actively avoid them either; mild anticipation is likely about the mark. Coming from someone who has sat through his share of bad genre entries, that’s no mean feat.

Dir: Anne K. Black
Star: Melanie Stone, Adam Johnson, Jake Stormoen, Nicola Posener

Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

mooncalledUrban fantasy is a sub-genre I still haven’t explored much; but I’d heard a lot of good things about Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. When a generous Goodreads friend offered me her copy of the series opener when she finished reading it, rather than let it gather dust on her shelf, I grabbed it up, and as my rating indicates, I’m glad I did.

Mercy’s a were-coyote, living in an alternate U.S. much like ours, except that here the “lesser fae” (brownies, kelpies, etc.) are public knowledge –but other types of supernatural or magic-practicing beings are not. She’s is the out-of-wedlock daughter of a Blackfoot Indian shape-shifter, who died in an accident before she was born, and a white mother who had a werewolf relative in her family three generations back. When she found Mercy in coyote form in her crib, she arranged to have her fostered in a small, werewolf-dominated community in the wilds of Montana. Hence, Mercy’s quite knowledgeable about werewolves and their ways. Vampires and a gremlin are also parts of her social world, though werewolves play the biggest role.

Both the urban fantasy novels with female protagonists that I read earlier were actually written later than this one, so didn’t influence it; the most germinal influence on all three was probably the early Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton. What they take in common from that influence is the idea of a strong young (or young-appearing) heroine with supernatural traits, in a modern urban setting, interacting with supernatural beings of various types, and capable of handling herself in physical combat situations if she has to. Within that concept, though, there’s room for considerable individuality and uniqueness in the way it’s developed. As a writer, Briggs is very much her own person, and her heroine and fictional vision aren’t clones of any other.

At the core of this novel, of course, and the main ingredient in its appeal, is the well-drawn, round-character figure of Mercy herself. She’s a kindhearted person who genuinely cares about others and their needs, and who attracts friendship by being a friend. Her shape-shifting is a part of who she is that she’s come to accept; but she still feels isolated because of it, even from her human family (more her problem than theirs) and lonely as the only one of her kind that she knows. Though no plaster saint, she’s a practicing Christian. No gun/sword for hire, she’s chosen a peaceful, though male-dominated, trade as a auto mechanic, and when our story opens, hasn’t been involved in violence before. But she’s well aware that she lives in a violent, dangerous world. A purple belt in karate, she’s a concealed carry permit holder who owns at least three guns (and makes her own silver bullets), physically strong, smart and possessing an inner core of resolution that’s prepared to do what needs doing in a crisis. So she’s prepared to face trouble and danger –and that’s just as well, because it’s about to find her, and people that she’s befriended and cares about. (The violence in the book isn’t gratuitous or graphic, however.)

The arrival of a strange werewolf teen starts the novel off with a note of mystery, which quickly escalates into a gripping plot built around a shadowy conspiracy, that keeps you guessing right down to the denouement. All of the other major characters, and even most of the secondary ones, are well developed and vivid; the author’s prose flows easily, and she incorporates just the right amount of description. While the action isn’t non-stop, the action scenes are effective. A strong point of the novel is the development of the werewolf subculture, which feels real enough to suspend disbelief. Briggs’ werewolves are more like Anthony Boucher’s than like the traditional, moon-crazed psychopaths out to kill anything that moves (I greatly prefer the former, so that’s a plus); they’re not innately evil just because they’re lycanthropes, and they can have some really good personal qualities. (They also take true wolf form, though larger and with more varied coloring, not a man-wolf hybrid form, and have some wolf behavioral characteristics even in their human form.) But they do have a predatory animal nature they need to control, and believable dominance issues.

The Tri-Cities metropolitan area of southeastern Washington state, where Mercy lives, is a real place (population in the 270,000 range), and apparently accurately described; the map that Briggs includes is a helpful feature. Although Mercy had a teenage attraction to one of the werewolf characters (and they still have some feelings for each other), and there’s also some attraction between her and another male character, with a kiss at one point, I would not characterize the book as “paranormal romance.” That element is a decidedly minor thread in the plotting, and Mercy’s feelings aren’t focused on one object.

There are a couple of places where the author uses Mercy as a mouthpiece for a comment or sermon pushing “politically correct” sentiments, in a way that comes across as preachy and judgmental. This was irritating, and detracted from my rapport with the character. At one point, Briggs has Mercy holster a revolver she’s already put in her pack, and which, as noted a couple of pages later, she doesn’t even have a holster for; and she refers to semi-automatic pistols as “automatic” (a common enough mistake –at least she refers to magazines as magazines, not “clips”). But those are relatively nit-picking quibbles. Briggs has made a worthwhile contribution to the urban fantasy field, and to supernatural fiction in general, with this series debut. Its deserved popularity rests on a solid base of literary quality.

Note: While there’s no obscenity and little bad language of any kind in the book (the point is made that Mercy doesn’t appreciate profane use of God’s name), and no sexual activity of any kind, Briggs does devote a lot of attention to homosexual werewolf Warren’s relationship with his human lover

Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Zero Motivation

“Inaction heroines.”

zeromotivationWhile a period of national service in the armed forces may seem a good idea in theory, this satirical Israeli film is likely a good depiction of what it means in practice: a lot of thoroughly unmotivated soldiers, who just want to kill time and GTFO back to civilian life. This may not seem like an inspiring subject for a movie, yet somehow, ends up an endearing and amusing look at life in the armed forces, when your chief responsibility is basically to be in charge of shredding unwanted documents. For there is, it appears, a lot of bureaucracy and shuffling of paperwork in the the Israeli army, and that’s what Daffi (Tagar), Zohar (Ivgy) and their colleagues have to do.

They work in the office of their base, under the wary guise of long-suffering matriarch officer Rama (Klein), who tries to encourage their military habits into concepts such as, “Being a paper shredding NCO is what you make of it.” Of course, being young women, they are more interested in men, personal drama and owning the office high-score on Minesweeper. Or in Daffi’s case, getting out of the desert and being sent to an urban post like Tel Aviv. That requires her completing officer training, but when she does, Daffi discovers exactly why Rama perpetually has that look, and sets up a staple-gun shoot-out (right) with Zohar, after Daffi tries to erase her games.

Writer-director Lavie based the script on her own experiences, saying, “Like most girls during their two years of service, we didn’t risk our lives. But we were definitely in danger of dying of boredom.” There’s definitely an air of Private Benjamin here, and in particular Goldie Hawn griping, “I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms. ” While the conscripts here are under fewer illusions on their way in, it does a wonderful job of illustrating the gap between the broader perception of army life, and the tedious reality, which involves far more meetings, forms and guard duty. And for the last-named, not even the exciting stuff at the gates, but safely inside the base, where the sole “threat” is soldiers who can’t find the canteen.

The film is loosely divided into three sections, and it manages to juggle the comedic and dramatic elements quite nicely, so that some quite sharp shifts in tone are not too jarring. It’s certainly a concept which could easily be extended to a TV series – think M.A.S.H. in the Israeli desert, though I would certainly not have minded some more actual action. As is, the film may be almost the antithesis of what you’d expect in a “girls with guns” movie, yet you’d be hard-pushed to conclude this was a particularly bad thing. What it may lack in pulse-pounding, adrenalin-powered gunplay, is balanced by a selection of quirkily entertaining characters and a sharply-observed script.

Dir: Talya Lavie
Star: Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Dana Ivgy, Heli Twito

Dark Angel: The Ascent

“The devil in the details.”

darkangelThis is actually a really interesting idea. We generally think of devils as “bad” – but what if they don’t see themselves the same way, and feel they are doing an important part of the Lord’s work, by punishing sinners? That’s the concept here, which sees the demonic Veronica (Featherstone) clamber out of hell through a conveniently unguarded exit, to see what the world above is like – let’s face it, since all she gets are the wrongdoers sent to damnation, her opinion is a little skewed. Apparently unaware of such everyday issues as traffic (and likely more importantly for most male viewers, clothes), she rapidly gets nailed by a truck. In hospital, she is treated by Dr. Max Barris (Markel), who is perplexed by the odd behaviour of his new patient, but she pulls a Satanic version of the Jedi mind trick, and convinces him that she should move into his apartment. There, she watches television, discovers that there are plenty of perfectly-good wrongdoers here on Earth who need to be punished, and begins a vigilante campaign to take them out. This draws the attention of both the local cops investigating the trail of corpses, and corrupt local official, Mayor Wharton (James), who becomes Veronica’s #1 target.

I love films with a different take on the traditional heaven/hell division – Don’t Tempt Me is a personal fave – and this movie also raises some interesting questions, about whether it’s acceptable to do bad things for good reason. An example: generally, ripping someone’s spine out of there back is frowned up in most cultures. But what if they have been caught in the act of trying to rape a young woman? Where is your morality now? This isn’t pulled out thin air, and is actually what happens here; Veronica appears faintly perplexed that the victim doesn’t want the dripping spine as a souvenir of the incident. Of course, her ability to do that Jedi thing certainly makes life easier, even when her actions draw increasing attention – “covering her tracks” should be added to her long list: “Things of which I’m entirely oblivious.” It’s a shame that there isn’t more investigation into the spiritual aspects, like the scene where she meets a pair of nuns, and gets down on her knees for them. The poor sisters are even more confused when the cross they give Veronica  bursts into flames…

Instead, the film limps off into something that’s partly a love-story, and partly Veronica stalking the Mayor, neither of which are anywhere near as interesting. It feels as if they came up with the brilliant idea, started filming a movie based on the concept… and only then figured out they didn’t know what to do with it. Things peter out in a disappointing matter, and I suspect the makers (it’s a Charles Band production) were looking to start another of their franchises, alongside Trancers, Demonic Toys, etc. Perhaps future installments could have done a better job of exploring the potential in a universe, which is only hinted at here.

Dir: Linda Hassani
Star: Angela Featherstone, Daniel Markel, Milton James, Michael C. Mahon

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: Depends on how you define it…

onbaskiliskThis series opener is one that was been on my radar for a long time, so I was delighted to finally read it last year! Although I’m a science fiction fan, I’m not generally attracted to military SF, which of course this is. But that’s mostly because my impression is that much of that sub-genre concentrates heavily on futuristic military hardware, to the neglect of the human element (and I think the human element is what good literature is all about). But that’s not a problem here. To be sure, there’s futuristic military hardware, and techno-babble (see below). But the human element, and a rousing tale of human adventure, is the core of the book.

Ever since junior high school, I’ve appreciated historical fiction about the British Navy in the age of sail; I like the ambiance, the ethos, and the action of the storylines. Weber’s a kindred spirit in this respect, and particularly a fan of C. S. Forester (to whom he dedicates this novel). The latter’s Horatio Hornblower series provides the inspiration for Weber’s series, and the identity of the initials of the respective protagonists is no coincidence. This has led some Hornblower fans to cry “Foul!” and “Rip-off!” I’m not joining in those cries, however. Yes, Weber has definitely brought something of the flavor of the earlier novels, set in the life of an ocean-going navy in the Napoleonic Wars, to this tale of a space-faring navy in the far future. Honor’s Manticore is a kingdom with an aristocracy and a political system reminiscent of Regency England (the author actually provides a plausible historical explanation for this!), while its rival, Haven, has affinities to revolutionary France. And Honor has heroic qualities in common with Hornblower, as well as her initials. But that’s where the parallels end. She’s her own person, not a Hornblower clone, and I did not see the plot as duplicating anything from the earlier series; it’s original. (Granted, I’ve only read one Hornblower novel.) What we have here, IMO, is an SF homage to Forester’s canon, not a plagiarized rip-off.

Of course, it’s an updated homage, most noticeably in that the all-male world of Hornblower’s navy has finally met the world of women’s liberation. Not only do we have a female protagonist; women in Manticore (which currently happens to have a ruling Queen) enjoy full role equality with men, can occupy positions of power, and serve in the space navy on an equal footing with males. Being an (equalitarian) feminist myself, that’s music to my ears! Moreover, I’m a long-standing admirer of strong, take-charge, combat-capable heroines, and that definitely describes Honor. She’s got the smarts, guts, determination and decisiveness to captain a warship; but more than that, she’s a person of integrity, ethics, loyalty, and moral courage. (Honor isn’t just her name; it’s a quality that defines her.) No, she’s not perfect (she’s got a temper, that she sometimes has to fight to control!); but she’s a woman you can respect and admire. Her “kick-butt quotient” above is ambiguous only because she doesn’t engage in direct or one-on-one combat here (although she’s a strong, solidly-built woman, and back in her naval academy days once defended herself against a would-be rapist, thrashing him soundly). But she does command a starship, with cool-headed resolution and skill, in lethal ship-to-ship combat.

Weber’s supporting cast is life-like as well. His plotting is good, carefully developed and well-paced, with real suspense that rises to nail-biting intensity at the climax. Likewise, his world-building is capable and vivid. Spot-on political commentary with real contemporary relevance is embedded naturally in the storyline; and in the tradition of heroic action adventure, the moral message here is one that’s supportive of virtue, duty, patriotism, and loyalty.

That’s not to say it’s an unflawed debut. As other reviewers have noted, Weber’s partial to the info-dump technique. There are a couple of long ones here. The first one explains Manticore’s political system, and at least has the merit of being interesting in its own right. The second attempts to explain the mechanics of FTL space travel and hyper-space currents, as they work in the author’s imaginary view of the galaxy, in such a way as to provide a veneer of hard science. How valid any of this is (even by the standards of modern quantum theory, which I don’t understand or necessarily even fully accept!) I don’t know, and don’t care; and the excursion through it left me slightly glassy-eyed. I don’t have to have a solid basis in known science for my SF, so I’d have been happy with much less explanation –just a basic indication of what the spaceships can or can’t do. (If he wanted to include all this techno-babble, IMO, Weber would have been better off to put it in an appendix, as he does with his extensive discussion of Manticorean chronology –though my copy is missing a page of this. I didn’t miss it!)

There’s also a significant amount of profanity and obscenity here (though not from Honor); mostly from villains or military types under severe stress. (Readers who dislike extremely grisly violence should be warned that they’ll find some of that here, too!) But despite these factors, this was easily a four-and-a-half star read for me!

Author: David Weber
Publisher: Baen Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book. But the first two volumes, this and Honor of the Queen, are actually for free from the publisher, in electronic formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Angry River

“A bridge too far.”

angry riverNot just Angela Mao’s feature debut, it was also the first film produced by then-fledgling studio Golden Harvest, who would go on to become arguably the premier name in Hong Kong Film production, up until the colony’s handover back to China in 1999. Even discounting their work with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow, Donnie Yen, etc. and sticking purely to the action heroine field, Golden Harvest were the company behind She Shoots Straight, the Inspector Wears Skirts series and Naked Killer. Their commitment to our field is apparent right from this inaugural movie, where Mao plays dutiful daughter Lan Feng, whose father becomes one of the victims of ‘Poison Dart’, whose name pretty much explains what he does. Cursed to a long lingering death, the only cure is a rare herb.

Lan sets off to find it, crossing the fiery Angry River, going through the Merciless Pass, and encountering another couple of dangers without names, but we might as well call them the Cave of Really Bad Optical Effects, and the Giant Gecko That Knows Kung-Fu. The latter actually defeats our heroine (though she does save 15% on her car insurance), but impressed by her filial piety, she is given the herb, albeit at the cost of losing her kung-fu skills. She then has to make her way back home, which is even more perilous now she can’t fight, and has to rely on the kindness of strangers to protect her, because there are a lot of other people who are also very keen to get their hands on the mystical plant, whose powers extend beyond being merely an antidote to poison. And when she finally returns to her home, a nastier shock awaits.

Maybe it is just me: I kept being reminded of Homer’s Odyssey, with Mao playing the hero, whose objective, simply to get back home is endlessly diverted and derailed by external forces. I suspect any such similarity is, as they say, purely coincidental, and they just share the same basic plot of the hero’s journey, as introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. But there are elements where you can tell it was a debut film, such as the rubber-suited lizard which, it’s charitable to say, presumably worked better on the page than the screen. It’s also a mis-step to rob the heroine of her powers for almost the entire second-half, leaving her a spectator to her own story – even Odysseus only spent a bit of time tied to the mast. Particularly early on, Mao’s fights feel stilted – punch-pause-block-pause-kick – though there actually is a storyline reason for why she has to be reined in to start with, in order that Mao can go full-throttle at the end [like I said, the herb has other uses…] You can see where they were aiming – slightly to the side of the then-dominant Shaw Brothers studio – yet overall, there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement here. As a first effort, I guess it’s okay.

Dir: Feng Huang
Star: Angela Mao, Kao Yuan, Pai Ying, Han Ying Chieh

Mutant World

“Well, it’s no Sharknado 2. It’s not even Sharknado 3.”

mutantworldThis SyFy original movie takes place mostly after an “Earth killer”-sized meteor has struck the Eastern seaboard of the United States. A group of Doomsday preppers, with slightly more warning than most, are able to take shelter inside their refuge, a former missile silo, and settle down to wait out the apocalypse going on above ground. 10 years later, they’re forced to send a small group back up to the surface as the result of damage to their solar panels. Leading that patrol is Melissa King (Deveaux), whose father Marcus (Kim Coates, whom you will recognize if you’re a Sons of Anarchy fan) was the leader of the group, but was trapped outside their sanctuary when the meteor hit. The patrol discovers that the radiation resulting from the impact has wiped out most of humanity – but the survivors have been mutated by it, and turned into thoroughly unpleasant monsters. Exploring further, they find what appears to be sanctuary, populated by other survivors, only to discover that when the sun goes down, they too are no longer human. Fortunately for them, assistance is at hand in the former of the Preacher (Ashanti), a motorcycle riding, warrior-priestess, who appears to be in contact with the actual remnants of mankind.

Oh, dear. The potential is here, but is buried deeper than a nuclear fallout shelter, because there is hardly any aspect that is not badly botched, right from the start: Coates, the only real “name” in the cast, is barely in the film, the kind of bait-and-switch which is rarely a good sign. The script is just terrible: what’s supposed to be a quick mission up top to fix the power, somehow spirals off into a jolly road-trip, with no apparent regard for the people back in the bunker. While the mutants’ glowing green eyes are kinda cool, that is about as far as both the imagination and the budget goes; there’s no explanation provided either, for why some people are totally mutated, some are only mutated at night (!), and others, like the Preacher, are apparently entirely untroubled by mutantism, despite wearing no more protection than a long trench-coat. And don’t even get me started on Ashanti’s performance, which is about as unconvincing as you’d expect from a singer-slash-dancer-slash-whatever.

The film is clearly trying to establish Melissa’s credentials as some kind of a bad-ass, judging by the poorly-choreographed fight she has with the shelter leader, before heading up top [also worth noting: no-one appears to have aged or been changed in the slightest by the passage of a decade, whether underground or on the surface]. Outside of very intermittent moments, it doesn’t work, though in comparison to Ashanti, Coates is positively an Oscar-winner. I did somewhat appreciate the element of role-reversal found here, with the most bad-ass roles given to the actresses. However, good intentions are never enough to overcome execution as horribly flawed as we see here. By the end, I was hoping for another meteor strike, to put both the characters and the viewers out of our mutual misery.

Dir: David Winning
Star: Holly Deveaux, Ashanti, Amber Marshall, Jason Cermak

Magic Bites, by Ilona Andrews

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

magicbites“Ilona Andrews” is the pen name of a husband-and-wife author team; her first name really is Ilona. (There’s some confusion about his; “About the Authors” in the edition I read gives it as Andrew, but a comment in the extra material uses Gordon, as does the author page on Goodreads. Possibly Andrew Gordon?) They’ve attained considerable success with their urban fantasy Kate Daniels series. Since I’m a fan of both supernatural fiction and strong, kick-butt heroines, it isn’t surprising that the series had been on my radar for a long time before I read this opening volume, as a buddy read with a friend. It didn’t disappoint!

Our female co-author here is Russian-born, a fact reflected in our fictional heroine’s upbringing. An orphan, Kate was raised by a now-deceased Russian foster father, who named her (Kate is short for Ekaterina, and he made up “Daniels”). Ilona probably provides the authorial pair’s knowledge of Russian folklore, which figures prominently in both this novel and the bonus story. (That’s a plus for me, as it’s an area of folklore I know little about, and enjoy learning more; the authors also draw on a wide range of mythologies in developing the series.) Our setting here is Atlanta, and though the writers currently live in Austin, TX, their handling of Atlanta geography seems assured enough to suggest first-hand knowledge or very good research. (Though I might be easy to fool on that score, since I’ve never been to Atlanta myself!)

To be sure, this isn’t the early 21st-century Atlanta we know. The 24-year-old Kate lives in the mid-21st-century, and grew up in a world that for decades has been transformed by a phenomenon called the Shift. Unpredictable, periodic surges of magic flare through the world, temporarily knocking high technology out of service and bringing to life spells, wards, ley lines, and other assorted magical phenomena. A weakness of this book is that it doesn’t do much to explore the obvious intellectual, social and cultural changes this upheaval would have caused; they’re only hinted at. Another weakness is that the premise itself, although it’s certainly one of the most original in literature, isn’t entirely convincing (Kate’s suggested explanation isn’t plausible, IMO, but she only says it’s the prevailing theory, not that it’s a fact). But neither of these areas are central to the authors’ purpose. They simply want to set up a highly novel, ultra-dangerous and somewhat Balkanized world in which there’s plenty of scope for adventure for a mercenary like Kate. In that respect, they succeed admirably.

Kate’s something of a mystery woman; she’s close-mouthed about her heritage, but it includes some significant inborn magical ability. It’s not, however, anything that gives her invincible superhuman powers; she’s mortal, hurts and bleeds, and has to rely on her wits and physical conditioning in a fight, the same as any other human would. (She also has a magic sword, Slayer; but while it will do more damage to magic-imbued flesh than an ordinary sword would, it doesn’t wield itself –her actual sword skills are her own.) In a series, the key ingredient is a character(s) the reader likes enough to want to spend continuing time with. For me, Kate fits that bill. To be sure, she’s a rough-edged woman, something of a loner with authority issues and a tendency to be smart-mouthed; and while she’s not coarse, her vocabulary includes some pretty bad language at times. But for all that, she’s an intensely ethical person with a rock solid code of honor; if she needed to lay down her life to save a friend, or innocent people she doesn’t even know, she’d do it in a heartbeat, without whining or batting an eye (and she demonstrates that willingness here more than once). Though she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, she also has a very real spirituality that might surprise some readers, and she’s not into casual sex. Like all of us, she’s a work under construction (and she grows some here).

Kate’s not the only well-drawn character here; the supporting cast, including a radically evil villain, are also vividly realized, with both virtues and foibles. (Were-lion Curran, Atlanta’s Beast Lord of the shapeshifters, for instance, is unquestionably a brave man and one with a deep sense of duty and responsibility to his Pack –but he’s also arrogant, and misguidedly convinced that he’s Nature’s gift to women.) The authors’ originality doesn’t end with the Shift; the factional landscape of their richly-drawn world includes a number of unique and intriguing features, like an unusual take on vampires –here, they’re mindless automatons, mentally dominated by a faction of mysterious and sinister necromancers.

In some ways, the plot is reminiscent of the old pulp noir detective novels, with magic instead of tommy guns and supernatural creatures instead of rival Mafia mobs, and a protagonist who could give Sam Spade as good as she got in wisecracks (but who’s got better morals and a kinder heart than he did) and has about the same philosophy of investigation: “Annoy the people involved until the guilty party tries to make you go away.” But it’s an exciting plot, with developments I genuinely didn’t expect. (One or two points don’t stand examination in hindsight very well, but the narrative flow is strong enough to mask that.) There’s also a very strong, well-done conflict of good vs. evil theme here.

In places, this book can have a deeply dark tone, in that no punches are pulled in describing the horrible cruelty that evil minds can inflict on their fellow beings; some of this can be graphic. It’s also a very violent tale, and some of the violence can be gory (one character, for instance, dies with her torso split open and her heart crushed in her opponent’s fist) but it’s not gratuitous and the authors don’t wallow in it. In its darker elements, the novel reflects the real world. But it also takes seriously the light that really exists in the darkness.

More than one male character is sexually interested in Kate; and precisely because she’s not free with her favors, those who see their masculinity as depending on sexual conquests clearly view her as a challenge in that area. But that’s just a realistically-depicted aspect of gender relations in a toxic culture; there isn’t any development of a relationship here (let alone a focus on it) that would put this tale in the area of ” paranormal romance.” (Though I understand that in the later books, Kate will find a love interest.) Readers should be aware that there’s a significant amount of bad language in the book, including a number of uses of the f-word. But although there are some occasional off-color wisecracks, there’s no sex here.

Finally, the edition I read has some special added features: FAQs, character profiles of Kate and a few others, and a description of the various “factions” in her Atlanta, all of which I read; a couple of scenes written from Curran’s viewpoint, which I skimmed, and which would be of most interest to die-hard series junkies; a “Factions Quiz” that I skipped, and an excellent prequel story, “A Questionable Client.” (One of the more unique characters in the novel is Saiman, and we’re told that Kate met him some time before when she took a gig as his bodyguard, and saved him from a murder attempt; here, we get to experience that particular episode.)

Author: Ilona Andrews
Publisher: Penguin Group, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.