The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

informationistThe jacket copy for this opening volume of the author’s Vanessa Michael Munro series gives the impression that our heroine’s adolescent career, as part of a gang of gunrunners in the African jungle, lasted for years. It didn’t –she fled from Africa at the age of 15, after about a year with the gang. (They also weren’t mercenaries, and their smuggling operations included drugs as well as guns.) Otherwise, the information is accurate as far as it goes. We meet her nine years later, when she’s 24 years old. Before we do, though, we’re treated to a two-page, attention-grabbing prologue, set somewhere in West Central Africa, describing a terrifying experience which we quickly realize is related to our main plot, and which gives us a little bit of information and a whole lot of tantalizing ambiguity.

Four years later, Michael is approached by super-wealthy oil tycoon Richard Burbank, who wants to hire her to trace the now four-years-cold trail of his adopted step-daughter, who vanished somewhere in Africa on the cusp of adulthood. Finding a missing person isn’t something she’s ever done; she’s an information broker, a compiler of deep background on foreign countries, for governments, NGOs and corporations. But she’s extremely good at this, blessed with a facility for learning languages, strong computer skills, a powerful intelligence and single-minded focus and determination.

She’s also a mistress of disguise, who (with her hair cut short and her bosom tightly bound) can pass for a male if she needs to. Some reviewers focus on this, and on her preference for using her middle name, to make “androgyny” a central aspect of her character. IMO, this idea has been overstated; her character comes across as essentially female, without any ambiguity (though she’s more in touch with her kick-butt side than many women are). Passing for a male is a tactical device that can come in handy in some situations (and she’s not the only fictional heroine to find it so; Madeleine E. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance, for instance, does it frequently), and doesn’t entail any repudiation of her femininity. As for preferring “Michael” over “Vanessa,” she’s not the first person in literature or real life to want to change the way she’s addressed after a major transition in her life –especially from a traumatic period that she’d like to forget. (Her African associates knew her as Essa.) Anyway, Burbank has been assured that these skills will be transferable to ferreting out the fate and whereabouts of a person, and that Michael can succeed where others have failed.

Combat-capable females aren’t as rare in literature as they once were, but her fighting skills aren’t what make Michael a rather unique fictional heroine. (Though she has few peers where those skills are concerned –she’s adept with both guns and blades, and could kill you with a set of car keys if she has to). She’s a very complex and nuanced character, with aspects of her personality that aren’t all pretty. Her missionary parents, who didn’t plan for or want her, raised her in a mindset that sees God as an angry and condemning Judge rather than a loving and forgiving Father. The experiences of her African adolescence left her with massive internal abysses of guilt and anger which she uses her work to keep at bay; she has hardly any friends, and walks a psychological knife edge between moral decency and a homicidal darkness she could easily plunge into for keeps. Now, with the quest for Emily Burbank taking her back into a world she left nine years ago, she’ll face external conflicts with some very nasty villains; but her most desperate and consequential battle will be inside herself, and she’ll come to a moral decision that may save her –or destroy her.

Taylor Stevens’ unique personal upbringing gave her a first-hand knowledge of a number of world locales; this is probably reflected in the vivid way settings in several countries on three continents are realized. (Some of Michael’s formative experiences may have something in common with Stevens’ own as well –though one hopes not.) The African milieu that forms the main setting is particularly life-like, with a you-are-there immediacy especially marked in the portrayal of the dangerous, paranoid Twilight-Zone nation of Equatorial Guinea, the model for Frederick Forsythe’s setting in The Dogs of War (a novel that Stevens references here –conditions there haven’t improved much since Forsythe wrote). Her prose style is crisp and quick-moving, with a wealth of realistic detail that lends verisimilitude. All of the major characters are fully three-dimensional, adding to the texture and emotional evocative quality of the storyline. Plotting here is a tour-de-force, with major twists and surprises in store; the quality of suspense is very taut through much of the book, and comes right down to the wire.

This is an action-adventure novel, so the reader should expect that it’s going to have some violence; more than a few people are going to get killed here. None of the violence is gratuitous, and it isn’t over-described for its own sake; but some readers might find one scene a bit disturbing. There’s no explicit sex, but some sexual encounters are noted without being described in detail, and Michael’s sexual behavior is, like every other aspect of her life, affected by the psychic damage she carries. Readers concerned about bad language should note that there’s a fair amount of use of f-word, and profanity/cursing. For perhaps the first third or more of the book, this isn’t so marked, but it gets worse. (A couple of the English-speaking characters could be expected to have barracks-room vocabularies, but it’s less realistic when English obscenities are put into the mouth of non-English speakers.)

In a couple of place, I have a quibble or two with details. (A camera affixed to the peephole of a hotel door, for instance, would register images directly in front of it –NOT the adjacent door. And one tactical action near the end seems to have no credible reason for being done, except that it serves the author’s ultimate plotting purposes.) But quibbles don’t interfere with the fact that this is, overall, a very strong first novel. And, although there are sequels in the series, this opener comes to a very satisfying conclusion in itself; for readers who don’t want to get sucked into another open-ended series, this book can function perfectly well as a completed stand-alone.

Author: Taylor Stevens
Publisher: Broadway Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Gooodreads.

Last Shift

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“Bit of a cop-out.”

last shiftA strong start fails to be sustained, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the director here has a very limited selection of weapons in his cinematic arsenal. Jessica Loren (Harkavy) is a rookie cop, following in the footsteps of her late father. Her first assignment is the last (wo)man standing, on the final night before all duties at a police station are transferred to a new building. She’s supposed to be little more than a caretaker, waiting for the final clean-up crew to arrive, but virtually as soon as she is left alone, weirdness starts happening. She gets increasingly frantic calls from a woman who says she has been abducted, then a vagrant appears, first outside and then inside the facility. Furniture moves. Ghostly singing is heard. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, before a conveniently-passing bystander informs Jessica that tonight marks the year to the day that a notorious cult of serial killers were caught and brought to the station, where they all committed suicide.

Despite moments that are unquestionably effective, DiBiasi uses the jump scare far too often, beyond where it becomes not just ineffective, and instead a joke. I lost count of the number of times that the heroine saw something, heard a noise that made her look in another direction, and when she turned back, whatever had been there was gone. I did like the way you were never quite sure whether what you were seeing had any objective reality – perhaps a prank by her fellow officers on a new recruit – or if it was entirely in Jessica’s head. And while she stays around well past the point at which any rational person would have legged it out of there, the backstory gives a plausible explanation, in terms of her desire to make a good first impression, and live up to her father’s legacy. However, given that, her apparent complete ignorance of (or amnesia about) previous events doesn’t make sense, especially since her father died apprehending the cult in question.

Things ramp up in the final reel, with the station under siege by other members of the cult, but I have to confess, my attention had not been adequately sustained through the middle portion. Harkavy gives her best shot, and is decent, but this performance isn’t so much acting as reacting, and given she is alone for much more of the film than you’d expect, it needs a good deal more. I couldn’t help comparing this with another take with a not dissimilar theme and location, Let Us Prey. That succeeds a great deal better, not least because it provided a solid antagonist against whom the heroine must battle, rather than an apparently endless line of ghosts and cheap (if, it must be admitted, sometimes successful) shocks, as provided here.

Dir: Anthony DiBlasi
Star: Juliana Harkavy, Joshua Mikel, Hank Stone, Mary Lankford

Saint Joan

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“Joan of Inaction”

saintjoanAn adaptation by noted playwright Graham Green of George Bernard Shaw’s 1924 play, this is most famous for the extensive search undertaken by director Preminger to find the “right” Joan for the job, which involved testing over 18,000 candidates before settling on Seberg. whose only previous acting to that point had been in school plays. That’s in sharp contrast to the experience in the rest of the cast, which included Widmark as Charles, the Dauphin enthroned by Joan’s actions, and Gielgud as the Earl of Warwick, whose schemes lead to the heroine’s death at the stake. But what’s most notable here, in contrast to some of the other versions of the story we’ve written about, Preminger and Greene seem entirely disinterested in the process which brought the Dauphin to the crown. We see Joan’s rise to command, but the film then skips over everything from her approaching the fortress of Orleans, to the coronation of King Charles. In other words: the fun bits.

The framing story has Joan as a specter, visiting the aged king, along with the ghost of the Earl and other participants in her life, such as the English soldier who took pity on Joan at the stake and gave her a makeshift cross to hold. The adaptation whacked out, it appears, close to half the running-time of the play, and one had to wonder whether it is any more faithful to the work’s spirit. For in the preface to his work, Shaw explicitly wrote, “Any book about Joan which begins by describing her as a beauty may be at once classed as a romance. Not one of Joan’s comrades, in village, court, or camp, even when they were straining themselves to please the king by praising her, ever claimed that she was pretty.” This is in sharp contrast to Seberg, who even after giving up her long feminine locks for the almost compulsory crew-cut, looks more like Audrey Hepburn’s tomboyish little sister than someone, in Shaw’s words, “unattractive sexually to a degree that seemed to [contemporary writers] miraculous.”

It’s not entirely without merit; some of Shaw’s text still retains its impact, such as Joan’s explanation of why the French are losing: “Our soldiers are always beaten because they are fighting only to save their skins; and the shortest way to save your skin is to run away. Our knights are thinking only of the money they will make in ransoms: it is not kill or be killed with them, but pay or be paid. But I will teach them all to fight that the will of God may be done in France; and then they will drive the poor goddams before them like sheep.” The sheer certainty in Joan’s mind that’s she’s right, and will accept no arguments to the contrary, is impressive. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to sustain the film overall, and you’re left without much insight into either the history, or the personalities who created it.

Dir: Otto Preminger
Star: Jean Seberg, Richard Widmark, Anton Walbrook, John Gielgud

Brianna’s Reprisal, by David Wittlinger

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reprisalAlthough this book was just published on Jan. 3, I actually had the privilege of beta reading it last month, so this review is based on that read. (The final text has some minor additions, and a slight re-working of one incident.) This sequel to The Strong One is set about six months after the events of the first book, and our principal setting is Vineland, New Jersey (which is a real city, population 54,800).

Author Wittlinger didn’t originally intend to create a series character in Brianna, but he found her so captivating that he had to explore her story further. That’s an understandable reaction; I noted in my review of the first book that I was invested in her myself, and eager to see more of her personal growth. She’s one of the more interesting characters I’ve encountered in modern fiction, and the author brings her to well-rounded life with impressive skill. Despite her potty mouth, misguided sexual attitudes, and the emotional baggage she carries from a childhood and young womanhood that no human being should have had to suffer through, she has a basic core of kindness and honor, with a gritty pluck and will to better herself, that makes you naturally tend to root for her. The woman she was at the end of the first book had grown significantly from the person she was at the beginning. Her journey will continue in this volume, and it will take her to a crossroads where she has to make a crucial moral choice. How readers will feel about her decision will depend on the person –it’s a thought-provoking dilemma that forces us to put ourselves in her shoes and ponder how we’d react, or how we should. But whether you agree or disagree with her choice, you’re apt to continue to care about her.

The strengths of the first volume ate present here, too: lifelike characterization, well-handled prose, suspense, plotting that’s credible but that has some serious twists and surprises, good handling of action scenes, and considerable evocation of real emotion. While there are still a couple of sex scenes, there’s less explicit sexual content here than in the previous book –though this tale also explores another facet of the slimy underbelly of America’s illicit sexual culture, this time the horrors of human trafficking in sex slaves. (And yes, this goes on in real life in the good ol’ U.S.A.)

IMO, the series should be read in order. This book makes reference to events of the previous one that you won’t really be familiar with without having read it, and to fully understand who Brianna is, you have to follow her development and story arc from the beginning. (Both books are quick, compulsive reads –I read this one in three days.) Neither book ends with anything like a cliffhanger –there’s resolution of the particular events depicted– but both set the stage for a succeeding volume; Brianna’s adventures will be at least a trilogy. I’m committed to following them for the long haul; and if you read this far, I think you will be, too!

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

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Assassination

starstarstarstarhalf
“Burning Japanese.”

assassinationNot, in any way, to be confused with The Assassin, despite both being distributed in the United States by Well Go, this is substantially more entertaining, being a nicely put-together period actioner that, in some ways, reminded me of Inglourious Bastards. In 1933, Korea was occupied by Japanese forces, against which a slew of liberation movements fought. As part of the rebellion, plans are afoot to assassinate Kawaguchi Mamoru, the local Japanese governor and Kang In-gook (Lee G-y), a Korean tycoon who has collaborated with the occupiers. Tasked with leading a small group to carry out the mission is Ahn Ok-yun (Jun), a lethal sniper; she’s bailed out of military prison where she has been sent for “accidentally” shooting her superior. Yeom Seok-Jin (Lee J-j) is overseeing the operation, but is actually working for the Japanese, and hires an independent hit-man (Ha), known as “Hawaiian Pistol” to sabotage it. Making things infinitely more complex, it turns out that Kang’s daughter is actually the twin sister of Ahn, the women having been separated and brought up, oblivious of each other’s existence.

There’s a very good sense of time here, with a lot of money having clearly been spent on sets, costumes, motor vehicles and everything else necessary to create Korea of the time. The action sequences are slickly put-together, without ever devolving into excess; to be honest, they’re probably a bit more plausible than the plot, where the “twin” aspect leads, in the final reel, to some developments that pass beyond incredible to uncredible. It is also more than somewhat relentless in its anti-Japanese message, bordering on the xenophobic, albeit perhaps for understandable reasons, and at 140 minutes, feels a good 20 too long. That said, there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, in the performances and complex plot, which ends up spanning nearly 40 years from prologue to epilogue, as well as the glorious set-piece battles. The pick of these is probably the group’s first attempt as assassinating their targets, diverting them to a gas station and into a killing zone on their way out of the city, but equally as impressive is a gun-battle when a wedding devolves into a siege situation [which explains the image, above right!]

I was trying to figure out why Jun was familiar, and eventually realized she had starred in the live-action adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire. While that was largely forgettable, she has become a huge star in her native Korea, both in film and on television. This is certainly more impressive than Blood, and she is certainly the emotional heart of the film, as well as providing some of its most memorable moments, such as when she pauses on the way to begin her mission, to take out a pair of Japanese machine-gun nests, with a grand total of four bullets. This kind of swift characterization demonstrates her character’s competence early, and the film even avoids the obvious desire for a romantic subplot. Despite the obvious issues noted above, the positives are good enough to outweigh them, and overall, this provides an enjoyable couple of hours of wartime derring-do.

Dir:
Star: Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ha Jung-woo, Lee Geung-young

Guns For Hire

starstarhalf
“Fires nothing but blanks.”

gunsforhireThe first spectacular misfire of 2016, I was hoping for much more, than a story that could only be claimed to make any sense if it was entirely the ravings of a mentally-deranged idiot. Beatle (Hicks) is a tow-truck driver/assassin – yes, that’s what it says on her business cards – who rescues Athena (Carradine) from her abusive ex-boyfriend, Kyle (Mendelsohn). In revenge, he sets deranged psychopath Bruce (Morgan) on their trail, and he is prepared to stop at nothing to bring them back to his boss. Meanwhile, Athena hires Beatle to kill her, but they have to hang out until the change in Athena’s life-insurance policy, making Beatle the beneficiary, is officially completed. Except, is Beatle actually a killer at all? For her therapist seems convinced otherwise. The entire saga unfolds in flashback, as Beatle is being interrogated by a detective, who has found the videotape of Beatle’s infomercial for her hitwoman business. Certainly sounds like an unusual set-up, and potentially interesting, right?

Wrong. It’s an overly talky and thoroughly unconvincing slab of pretentious nonsense, which is nowhere near as smart as it thinks, and completely fails to provide the “Nonstop action!” proclaimed on the cover. Both Beatle (seriously, what kind of name is that?) and Athena are the kind of characters you would actively seek to avoid if you met either of them in real life, and the film does nothing to make spending 75 minutes in their company any more attractive. Perhaps it might have worked, if the story had done more with the question of whether or not Beatle is an assassin only in her own mind, following the American Psycho approach. That would, at least, have tied in with the final twist, which basically screws up everything you’ve endured to that point, and throws it out the window. Thanks a bunch, for wasting the audience’s time, Ms. Robinson.

There’s a subplot involving Beatle and a stripper, which seems present only to provide some gratuitous lesbian titillation for undemanding male viewers, and – speaking as the apparent target audience – doesn’t even work on that level. Instead, you’re left to cope with performances which range from the passable (Morgan does his best, in limited screen time) through the gratuitously excessive (Tony Shalhoub turns up as a DMV employee, for no reason) to the spectacularly incompetent (I’ll spare the name of the “actor” “playing” the “detective” – all three sets of quotes used advisedly). Add dialogue which, I can only presume, must have sounded an awful lot better in writer-director Robinson’s head than it plays on screen, and you’ve got something that fizzles an enormous amount more than it sizzles. As the first of our “coming in 2016” films to be reviewed, it feels more like a New Year’s Day hangover than any kind of shiny, positive resolution.

Dir: Donna Robinson
Star: Ever Carradine, Michele Hicks, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ben Mendelsohn

Wreaths of Empire, by Andrew M. Seddon

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

wreathsIt’s often frustrating to me that in today’s two-tiered fiction market, in which the big-time tier is practically a closed caste and the tier that admits everybody else is so glutted that gems get easily buried beneath the mountains of slag (and nobody knows where to look for them), it’s really difficult for some first-class authors to get the recognition and readership they deserve, and would have had a generation ago. Andrew M. Seddon is definitely one of these authors. He and I have been Internet friends for over ten years; I had the privilege of beta reading this excellent novel a couple of years ago (and Andrew is kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgments, though he truly didn’t need much if any help from me!) and now, since he’s generously given me a signed copy, I have the added privilege of being one of the first persons to review it anywhere.

Andrew writes high-quality historical and supernatural fiction, but it’s probably fair to say that his literary first love is science fiction. A medical doctor, his training and experience in the life sciences gives him a predilection for the genre’s “hard” tradition, in which science is handled accurately and the speculative element builds on credible extrapolation from actual knowledge. Wreaths of Empire stands in this tradition; it’s also a work of “space opera,” set in a far-future galaxy with far-flung human settlement, against the background of “a clash of civilizations,” humans vs. aliens in a high-stakes interstellar war, with battle scenes, intrigue, and plenty of action. In its roots and for much of its history, this tradition tended to be associated with shallow characterization, a simplistic “us against them” orientation, and heavy concentration on description of hardware and display of technological and scientific speculation to the neglect of the human element. Happily, none of those features have ever characterized Andrew’s work, and don’t here. This is a novel where the key element is people (whether they’re human or alien) and the choices they make –people and choices we come to care about greatly.

Readers of Andrew’s earlier novel Iron Scepter will recall that there we find the malevolent Hegemony, which dominates human space, plotting to gin up a war against another space-faring race, the Gara’nesh, in order to use fear and hatred of an outside enemy to solidify its own control over its hapless subjects. This new novel is set in the same universe, like much of Andrew’s SF. (Despite the broad chronological framework that ties them together, though, these books aren’t a “series;” they can each stand alone and be read independently.) Here, though, our setting is much later; the bloody Gara’nesh war has dragged on for decades, shaping the lives and attitudes of a whole generation that’s never known anything else. When we meet Jade Lafrey in the prologue, she’s an ensign in the Hegemony’s space fleet –an ensign who’s destined to make a crucial choice that will have far-reaching consequences, for the galaxy and for two sentient species.

Eleven years later, as peace negotiations are finally opening, Jade’s a (space) Naval Intelligence officer, called on to deal with a complex behind-the scenes intrigue that may threaten the diplomatic efforts, if not the survival of humanity itself; and it will be very difficult to tell friend from foe. She’ll get her share of fighting action and physical jeopardies and challenge as a result. As an added bonus for action heroine fans, the author actually gives us two action-oriented ladies here; besides our protagonist, one of the secondary female characters, interstellar smuggler Trevarra, can also handle herself well in a fight. (In fact, while the one-star kick-butt quotient above rates Jade’s performance, if I’d rated Trevarra’s it would have been three.)

Earlier this year, I was asked if I could provide a blurb for the cover copy of this book. I can’t think of a better way to finish this review than to quote it. “Top-notch SF author Seddon creates possibly his best novel yet in Wreaths of Empire, bringing a new depth and freshness to the space opera tradition. A wonderful heroine to cheer for; a well-crafted, character-driven plot; some of the genre’s finest writing; excitement, suspense, and food for thought –what more could a reader ask for?”

Author: Andrew M. Seddon
Publisher: Splashdown Books, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Kyoko vs. Yuki

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“Dead boring. Note: that is not just a critical opinion, it’s a statement of content…”

kyokovsyukiThe ultimate high school girl assassin Kyoko (code name 2029), who was raised by a mysterious underground organization finally became active. Meanwhile, the high school girl Yuki (born in 1983) with a reputation for being the strongest fighter in town, was living carefree every day with her girlfriend. And then, when the two met, a bloody battle for the title of “strongest high school girl” began…

Well, it sounded promising. Unfortunately, even though this lasts 52 minutes, the execution is so woefully inept, that you would be much better off watching half of Half Revenge Milly. The plot sees Kyoko (Fujikawa), having completed her training, sent on a mission to retrieve a suitcase of drugs which has been stolen from the organization that employs her. The Yakuza who stole it is currently living it up with what he thinks is a schoolgirl prostitute, but is actually Yuki (Satomi), who is intent on rolling her “compensated dating” boyfriend. She does so to help her lesbian lover, Miki (Satô), left deep in debt after acting as guarantor for a loan taken out by her sister, who has since vanished. However, when Kyoko finds out the pair now have her employer’s possessions, her revenge is swift and brutal, setting up a subsequent confrontation between her and Yuki.

Director Yamanouchi apparently has a bit of a “reputation” for sleaze, and that certainly seems justified here. Not so much for the lesbian sex, which pretty much par for the course: it’s the subsequent excursion into lesbian necrophilia for which this one will be remembered. It certainly won’t be for the fight scenes, which are feeble in the extreme, poorly-staged and possible even more badly edited. Sure, it’s clear that none of the actresses here were employed for their martial-arts abilities – even if, curiously, Fujikawa keeps her clothes on. Yet given the premise, you’d have thought those involved would at least have made some effort, albeit a token one. Nope. It’s wretched on just about every level, and even the splatter seem unenthusiastic, save for a mildly effective umbrella through the face. Oh, and I did laugh at Yuki taking her bra off and using it to try and choke Kyoko.

Maybe that’s really what this is: a parody of the genre, deliberately made to be piss-poor. However, from what I’ve read about Yamanouchi’s other work, it seems unlikely: satires doesn’t appear to be his bag, and this is described, in more than one place, as relatively restrained by the director’s own standards. That probably isn’t a good thing: if you don’t have production values… Or good actors… Or a script… Then at the very least, you should go full-throttle and embrace the madness, and it’s what the best of these J-film entries do. This one? Not so much.

Dir: Daisuke Yamanouchi
Star: Kyoko Fujikawa, Yôko Satomi, Kinako Satô

Battle of the Amazons

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“This world was made for hate, not love.”

amazonsIt’s startling to think that when this came out, this merited not only a theatrical release in the United States, but a review from perhaps the most respected critic of our time, the late Roger Ebert. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for the film, but Ebert tearing apart a film is still fun to read. I particularly liked the line, “There are spears and bows and arrows and swords, which suggests early times, but then again all of the women on both sides are fresh from the hair dryer. They also exhibit impressive technical advances in the art of brassiere-design.” Yeah, welcome to The Magnificent Seven – only set in a vaguely Greco-Roman era, with a tribe of rather vicious Amazons the antagonists.

They live by raiding and plundering local villages, under Queen Eraglia (Love), but after they kill her father, local lass Valeria (Tedesco) has had enough, and rents the service of conveniently-passing bandit Zeno (Tate), to teach the village farmers how to defend themselves. However, the sexual chemstry that flies between Valeria and Zeno fail to impress her betrothed, who convinces a group of village men, that their best chance of survival is to switch sides, reveal details of the defense plans to Eraglia, and hope she sees fit to give them mercy. It turns out though, that he may not be the only snitch present in the town camp, as things proceed towards the entirely expected finale, a lengthy battle pitting the raiding women against the defending agriculturalists.

It’s actually a little darker and possibly somewhat more well-thought out than I expected: the final line of dialogue being the one atop this review, which sprinkles a nice sense of doom and futility over things, and the multiple levels of betrayal are effectively handled. I started watching this on a plane flight to New York, but I think the second topless torture scene was about where I opted to save it for another day, though there really isn’t much else here worse than PG-13 rated. Tedesco makes a good impression as the feisty heroine, and it’s a nice touch to have women effectively leading both sides, though when it comes to the actual fighting, Valeria obviously steps aside for Zeno. Sadly, the Amazons also step aside when the action kicks off, largely being unconvincingly replaced by male stunt doubles in masks and wigs. Valeria acquits herself best there as well, indeed coming to the rescue of her employee in the final face-off. I can’t honestly say I minded the dubbing as much as Roger, and the time passed briskly enough on its way to an appropriately grandiose finale. Though I’m certainly agree with him on one point: I’m not quite sure why the local men made such a fuss about getting kidnapped…

Dir: Alfonso Brescia
Star: Lincoln Tate, Paola Tedesco, Lucretia Love, Mirta Miller

Petty Treason, by Madeleine E. Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

pettytreasonThis second volume of Robins’ high-quality Sarah Tolerance series has much in common with the first book, (Point of Honour, which I’ve already reviewed here) in style and literary strong points; and of course it shares a protagonist and other continuing characters (and an ethos) with its predecessor, and builds on the premise and events laid out there. While it could be read first and still be enjoyed, IMO the series should be read in order to fully understand the characters and relationships (and Sarah’s unique situation), and appreciate their development here.

Six months have passed since the events of Point of Honor; we’re now in November, 1810. In the background, the Napoleonic Wars still drag on, with widespread dissatisfaction on the home front with the sacrifices the government demands to support and provision the troops abroad; and Queen Charlotte’s poor health fuels the poisonous infighting of Whig and Tory factions as they jockey for the possible appointment of a new regent. The book’s cover copy gives a basically accurate explanation of the case confronting Sarah here –except that this is actually NOT a locked room mystery, classic or otherwise; whoever wrote the description didn’t read the book carefully. It’s not her usual type of investigation, and she undertakes it reluctantly; she’s accustomed to inquire after lost articles, errant spouses, social skeletons in the closet, etc –not to track down murderers. But the events of the previous book have demonstrated that she can do the latter; and since the investigating authorities are inclined to pin this crime on the widow, her brother believes that hiring Sarah might be his desperate last chance to find the real culprit and clear his sister.

Robins has crafted a challenging mystery that will satisfy genre fans, and keep them guessing down to the wire; the deceased had secrets that don’t immediately meet the eye, and he wasn’t the only one with things to hide. The pace of the storytelling and investigating is slow, in keeping with transportation by foot or by horse and communication by written messages; we see investigation conducted as it actually would be in this cultural context and with this kind of technology (or lack of technology). We’re also immersed very much in the daily life of a young woman in the Regency world; the way the author brings the milieu to life is a great strength of the series.

That said, the action component here is significantly greater than it was in the first book, reflected in the kick-butt quotient above, which here goes up a star. There’s also much less in the way of actual sexual situations, though Sarah still lives out back of her aunt’s high-society brothel and is close friends with a prostitute, and though her inquiries here will expose her to the ugly world of sexual sadism, where some brothels called “birching houses” cater to the tastes of males who get sexual satisfaction from beating and brutalizing women. As in the first book, there’s not much bad language here; low-life characters use the f-word three times, but in a context where it’s actually the Anglo-Saxon verb these people would use (rather than as an all-purpose expletive, as we hear it nowadays).

Sound historical research underlies the story here, as Robins makes clear in her appended “History and Appreciation.” The details of English criminal law of that day, as given in the book, are accurate; and the attempt to kill one of the king’s sons, the Duke of Cumberland, by his valet Sallis (who committed suicide when it failed) really did take place in May 1810. (In her alternate world here, Robins took the liberty of moving it to August.) And Cumberland actually was, as here, a scandal-ridden High Tory who wasn’t much loved by the populace. An equalitarian feminist subtext set against the backdrop of a very chauvinistic society (and ours really isn’t much less so, though we’re more hypocritical about it) is another strong point here.

Sarah’s a great heroine, who readily earns this reader’s respect and admiration. The snobbier members of Regency High Society don’t consider her a “lady” (and she doesn’t claim to be), and think an unwise choice made in the passion of teenage love should forever brand her as a moral pariah. But most readers will recognize her as a lady, and a classy one, with a very solid moral compass and integrity. And as the best literature always does, this novel focuses on very real moral choices, that will further temper the precious metal of her integrity in a crucible.

There’s no second-in-the-series slump here; if anything, I actually liked this novel even better than the first one! Next year, I’m hoping to read the third installment of the series, The Sleeping Partner.

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Tor, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.