Amazons: Miss-ology in fact and fiction

Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, with Herakles between Amazons. Fragment of a terracotta volute-krater, created: circa 330–310 B.C

Not in strength are we inferior to men; the same our eyes, our limbs the same; one common light we see, one air we breathe; nor different is the food we eat. What then denied to us hath heaven on man bestowed?
  
— Queen Penthesilea, The Fall of Troy

Wonder Woman has spent this summer closing in on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, for the title of biggest worldwide box-office by an action heroine (depending on how you view The Force Awakens – personally, I’m with-holding a definitive opinion until I see how the series develops). So it seems an appropriate point to take a look at the legendary Amazons – the women warriors tribe of which Diana Prince is supposedly a part. But how “legendary” were they? Is there evidence to suggest they might, in part, have been based on real women warriors of ancient times?

The Amazons of myth

The first mentions of the Amazons were by 8th-century Greek poet, Homer, in The Iliad, though these were little more than passing references. King Priam of Troy recounts a battle from his youth: “I looked on the Phrygian men with their swarming horses, so many of them, the people of Otreus and godlike Mygdon, whose camp was spread at that time along the banks of the Sangarios: and I myself, a helper in war, was marshalled among them on that day when the Amazon women came, men’s equals.” Similarly, among the exploits recounted of Bellerophon, who captured and tamed the flying horse, Pegasus, was that “he slaughtered the Amazons, who fight men in battle.”

They are more significant in the saga of Heracles (a.k.a Hercules) and his twelve tasks. The ninth was to obtain the belt belonging to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. This had been given to her by Ares, the god of war, and was used to carry her sword and spear. He did convince her to hand it over peacefully, but the goddess Hera was intent on stopping Heracles, and roused Hippolyta’s subjects against him. In the ensuing battle, Hippolyta was killed by Heracles. This is the first time we hear of Themiscyra as their home. though rather than an island nation, it was a town near the Black Sea, in what’s now Turkey. Another Greek hero, Theseus, also encountered them; some stories have him accompanying Heracles and marrying an Amazon, triggering a long conflict with Athens, known as the Attic War.

The main source for information is Herodotus, a historian of the fifth century B.C. The story he tells starts with the Greeks defeating the Amazons and taking three shipfuls of them captive, only for the prisoners to overthrow their captors, and land in Scythia, on the north of the Black Sea. “The Amazons had nothing except their arms and their horses, and got their living… by hunting and by taking booty.” There, they fought the locals, until the Scythians decided to make love not war, and sent their young men out to befriend the raiders, which they did so successfully, it led eventually to an entire separate tribe, the Sauromatai, about whom he says:

From thenceforward the women of the Sauromatai practise their ancient way of living, going out regularly on horseback to the chase both in company with the men and apart from them, and going regularly to war, and wearing the same dress as the men… As regards marriages their rule is this, that no maiden is married until she has slain a man of their enemies; and some of them even grow old and die before they are married, because they are not able to fulfil the requirement of the law.

This is relatively restrained, and seems plausible compared to some of the other myths which circulated about them. Not least is the whole “cutting off a breast so they could fire their bows better” thing, which appears possibly to stem from a mistranslation of “Amazon”. None of the depictions to be found in classical art, for example, show them with a count of breasts below two. There’s also the concept that they would get together, once a year, with the men of a nearby tribe, for the purposes of procreation, retaining only the resulting female children. Or the claim by Diodorus Siculus , that the Amazons of Queen Myrina used the skins of gigantic snakes, from Libya, to protect themselves at battle. Cool story, bro’.

Our pal Diodorus is also a primary source for the tale of Queen Thalestris and Alexander the Great, though some other biographers also mention her. He says Thalestris “was remarkable for beauty and for bodily strength, and was admired by her countrywomen for bravery.” She showed up in Alexander’s camp with 300 Amazons in full armour, and when asked why she had come, replied it was to have him father a child. “He had shown himself the greatest of all men in his achievements, and she was superior to all women in strength and courage, so that presumably the offspring of such outstanding parents would surpass all other mortals in excellence.” Thirteens days of, ahem, intense diplomatic negotiations followed – but history does not record whether any offspring did!

While Wikipedia snarkily comments, “Battles between Amazons and Greeks are placed on the same level as – and often associated with – battles of Greeks and centaurs,” they were a popular subject for art, to the point where there was a word for its depiction: Amazonomachy. It symbolized the Greeks’ struggle against everything uncivilized. Typically, the Amazons were portrayed in the style of Scythian horseman, again echoing the story of Herodotus. It’s perhaps interesting to note that on the relief sculpture of two female gladiator found at Halicarnassus, they were identified as Amazonia and Achillea, presumably the “ring names” of the women involved.

The Amazons in reality

All of the above stories were regarded as just that: stories, with no basis in fact. But as the world was gradually explored, there were various encounters with local inhabitants around the globe, which suggested that the legends may not have been without same basis in fact.

Originally, there were various names for the River Amazon: Rio Grande (Great River), Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea) or Rio da Canela. The one we know today, only came about after a 1542 expedition under Spaniard Francisco Orellana. On June 24, he and his men had a skirmish against natives, and “witnessed twelve tall arrow-shooting women, pale and nearly naked, with their hair braided around their heads, apparently acting as captains of the male warriors defending against the incursion. The women clubbed any warrior who tried to retreat.” A captive described the empire of Queen Conori, and the similarities in some aspects with the Hellenic Amazons, such as capturing men for breeding purposes, impressed Orellana enough that his expedition called the river they were exploring, the Amazon. That name stuck.

They were, however, still generally regarded as being little more than mythical. Belief in them as a historical entity was limited to the fringe, most notably Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen. In 1861 Bachofen published Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World. This suggested civilization had gone through four phases, including “Das Mutterecht,” a matriarchal ‘lunar’ phase, which was the origin of the Amazon myth. Some suggest he was an influence on Richard Wagner, in particular with regard to the Valkyries.

Elsewhere around the world, various societies and groups have evolved which mirror, in some aspects, those attributed to the Amazons by the ancient Greeks, such as being matriarchal and/or warrior in nature. For example, there were the Dahomey Amazons (right), a book about whom we previously reviewed. They were an all-female military regiment of the central African Kingdom of Dahomey, in what’s now Benin, which lasted from the 17th century until relatively recent times – their last surviving veteran reportedly died as recently as 1979. We have also talked about how the legendary Viking raiding parties were not as unisex as often supposed. And in 1857, the Daily True Delta carried this report, detailing at some length the all-women bodyguards recruited by the King of Siam (presumably when he wasn’t flirting with English schoolmarms…).

Meanwhile, back in their more traditional territory near the Black Sea, evidence in support of the myth was uncovered in the mid-90’s. Archaeologists dug up burial mounds near the town Pokrovka, in what is now Kazakhstan. Based on the content, these belonged to the Sauromatai, the tribe mentioned earlier. But the most relevant finds were multiple skeletons of women who had been interred with weapons. The New York Times reported, “One young woman, bow-legged from riding horseback, wore around her neck an amulet in the form of a leather pouch containing a bronze arrowhead. At her right side was an iron dagger; at her left, a quiver holding more than 40 arrows tipped with bronze.”

This makes sense: just as now, a gun offers a great equalizer in terms of countering an opponent’s size and strength, so did a horse and a bow in ancient times. There’s no reason why a woman would not be able to acquire just as much proficiency as a man in these areas. However, there’s nothing to suggest they lived separately from the men, in the way the ancient Greeks described. They would still have presented a startling contrast to Greek women. It’s believed they were tattooed, smoked marijuana and drank fermented mare’s milk, turning it into an alcoholic beverage known as kumis which is still consumed today, by the peoples of the Central Asian steppes.

Amazons in popular culture

Wonder Woman is just the most recent, and certainly most successful incarnation of the Amazon clan to find its way into the mass media. Virtually since the time of Herodotus, there have been a steady stream of tales, more or less exploiting prurient interest in the concept of a tribe entirely consisting of women. It has been used in ways both derogatory and complimentary: to mock women for losing their femininity, as well as to inspire them in their battle for increased rights. The suffragettes of the early twentieth century, in particular, frequently used the Amazons as a totem in their poems and stories.

One of the earliest films about them was 1933’s The Warrior’s Husband, which “tells the story of the Amazons, who ruled over men thanks to the sacred girdle of Diana, and Hercules who came to steal it.” This comedy was based on a Broadway play, most notable for giving Katherine Hepburn her big break, in the lead role of Antiope (shown right). According to The Telegraph, “The role required her to enter by leaping down a flight of steep steps while carrying a large stag on her shoulders. The RKO talent scout was so impressed by this feat that he offered her a film contract.”

We should mention the Amazon film that never made it to production. In early 1939, German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl was working on a feature about Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fought in the Trojan Wars. She had secured funding from Hitler, locations in Libya, and had even begun training young sportswomen to play the roles of Penthesilea’s army, with Riefenstahl (a bit of an Amazon herself – she did her own free climbing for her directorial debut, Das blaue Licht) playing the queen. However, the outbreak of World War II derailed what would certainly have been an interesting take on the myth.

Two years later, in October 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut, appearing in All Star Comics #8. She was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who had already become famous as inventor of the polygraph, and there was no doubt on which side of the battle he stood. “Wonder Woman,” Marston wrote, “is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He also called bondage a “respectable and noble practice,” which perhaps cast WW’s Lasso of Truth + Bracelets of Submission in a rather different light!

There have been no shortage of subsequent films to take the Amazon theme – though most of these bear about as much resemblance to the myth, as the myth does to the Scythians who inspired it! I’m not even going to attempt a comprehensive listing of these. Instead, I’ll pick and choose ten somewhat representative candidates, some of which have been reviewed on this site. They’re listed in chronological order.

  • Queen of the Amazons (1947) – or “Journey to the land of stock footage” as one review put it. The first, and certainly not the last, to relocate the myth to the African jungle.
  • Love Slaves of the Amazons (1957) – Made in Argentina in 1956, along with a film called Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, and using some of the same cast. Director Curt Siodmak claimed to have made the film because he had 10,000 feet of color film left over from Curucu but could not export the unused film.
  • Amazons of Rome (1961) – A rather misleading American retitling, of a film originally known as Le vergini di Roma, “The virgins of Rome”. But a surprising cast here, which includes Louis Jourdan, Sylvia Syms and Michel Piccoli.
  • Thor and the Amazon Women (1963) – An Italian/Yugoslavian co-production, filmed largely on location in the Postojna Caves of what is now Slovenia. Lobs some Scandinavian mythology into the mix, for no readily apparent reason, and may be anti-feminist rather than empowering!
  • Battle of the Amazons (1973) – “Tedesco makes a good impression as the feisty heroine, and it’s a nice touch to have women effectively leading both sides. Sadly, the Amazons also step aside when the action kicks off, largely being unconvincingly replaced by male stunt doubles in masks and wigs.”
  • War Goddess (1973) – “Credit is due to both Johnston and Sun, who take on material that often strays to questionable or even laughable, with a straight-faced intensity which is rather more than it deserves.”
  • Hundra (1983) – “The producers purchased some of the left-over costumes and props from Conan, which makes sense since the story here is also largely recycling its plot as well. Admittedly, it does so with a significantly enhanced feminist agenda, although this consists as much of portraying men as nothing but mindless boors as anything uplifting.”
  • Amazons (1986) – “There’s certainly plenty going on, with plots, treachery, topless human sacrifice, bad blood and an alternate dimension largely realised with dry ice and strobe lights. The action, unfortunately, sucks, though credit is due to Randolph for struggling with a lethargic snake, making it look like the most ferocious attack in cinematic history.”
  • Amazon Warrior (1998) – “The fight sequences just about pass muster – it helps if you squint at them sideways, rather than giving them your direct attention – and it appears that after civilization has collapsed into anarchy and chaos, what remains will resemble an SCA get-together, albeit with rather more fur bikinis.”
  • Amazons and Gladiators (2001) – “No real surprises in the plot, with everyone getting more or less what they deserve. But despite accents which roam the globe from Australia through England to America, it’s well-acted and well thought-out, with very few mis-steps. “

It’s to television, however, that we turn for the most well-known incarnation of an Amazon in pop-culture: the TV series Wonder Woman, which aired for three seasons from 1975-79, with Lynda Carter in the title role, playing superheroine (and Amazon refugee) Diana Prince. It followed on from an earlier, rejected pilot movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby, and the second pilot proved a much greater ratings success. After the first season was set in World War II, the following series (retitled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman) took place in the present day, and the result was one of the most iconic action heroines of the decade on television. There was a 2011 attempt to revive the show, with Adrienne Palicki as Diana; despite the presence of David E. Kelley as a writer, the pilot episode was never officially aired, and the project quickly died.

The other television show people will generally associate with Amazons is, of course, Xena: Warrior Princess. This is a bit of a grey area: despite sharing a number of characteristics, Xena herself was never a formal member of the Amazon tribe, despite helping them out on a number of occasions. However, irritating sidekick Gabrielle became their queen (more by chance than intent), and over the six seasons for which the show ran, there were typically between two and four episodes per series, featuring the tribe to some extent.

Amazons have turned up elsewhere, and sometimes in shows where you wouldn’t exactly expect to find them. Examples include Series 7 of Supernatural, which had an episode titled ‘The Slice Girls’ in which Amazons had made a bargain with their mother, the goddess Harmonia, turning them into monsters. Or in 2003, the SF show Stargate SG-1 had “Birthright”, in which the Amazonian legend was specifically mentioned, after the crew met the Hak’tyl Resistance, a group of female warriors. More recently, it was announced last year that the producer of NCIS, Charles F. Johnson, was working on Amazons, a live-action TV series about the Dahomey warriors mentioned above, though nothing more has been heard of the project.

It will be interesting to see if the critical and commercial success of the Wonder Woman feature will re-kindle interests in Amazons as a whole. While Diana Prince is a creation of DC Comics, the Amazons themselves are very much in the public domain, and can be used by any artist – be that on TV, film or in literature. The door is thus wide open for such uses: I’m a little surprised The Asylum haven’t already given us a mockbuster version of Wonder Woman, especially considering they did put out Sinister Squad… We’ll see what 2018 brings.

Elite

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“Because Mediocre  wouldn’t sell as well.”

A mission in central America against drug cartel boss Reynaldo Benitez (Garza) goes wrong, leaving eight Special Ops soldiers dead. This includes the husband of Naval Covert Operations Command agent, Abbey Vaughn (Gregory), who is intent on discovering the truth about what happened to her spouse. She links up with the only survivor of the operation, Lt. Sam Harrigan (Scarbrough), now living in a trailer, and spending his time drinking and practicing golf. Together with the rest of their team, they investigate the case, only to find the tentacles of organized crime are deeper embedded than they appear, and their inquiries put not only themselves, but Abbey’s family in serious danger.

The performances here aren’t the problem. Gregory and Scarbrough are both effective enough, and the supporting cast are equally watchable – special credit to Rousseau as team hacker Jazz, a character of whom I’d have liked to have seen more. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are also better staged than I was expecting. It appears a lot of the performers have MMA experience, along with indie wrestler Mike Dell, and this gives the fights a solid amount of credibility, with the punches appearing to have an impact on their recipients.

If only the same could be said for other aspects, which outweigh the positives overall. First, and largest, is the bane of many low-budget movies: bad audio. I had to sit with my finger on the remote control, perpetually adjusting the volume – one scene too loud, the next inaudibly quiet. The foley work on the gun-battles was simply laughable, using electronic bleeps and chirps that made bursts of semi-automatic fire sound more like birdsong. In general, anything involving armaments was problematic and unconvincing, with the production able to afford little or nothing in the way of collateral damage, to people or property.

The other main problem for me was the script, consisting of a collection of clichés and by-the-number plot points, without any genuine surprises to be found. It might have passed muster for a less discerning audience in the mid-eighties. Though unless they found the basic concept of moving pictures novel enough to be a distraction, I’m not even sure they would be satisfied. For example, immediately we saw the heroine’s father and daughter, I could guess exactly what their role in the film was going to be, and went 2-for-2 in my expectations.

It was particularly disappointing, because story-line is an area where resources shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, it will limit the scenarios open to the film-maker; however, you should still be able to do more than trot out hackneyed elements, arranged in a way that alternately bores and confuses (quite why an NCOC agent was conducting an investigation of a drug cartel escapes me, and I’m still uncertain whether a major character ended the film alive or dead). Even with a higher tolerance for small-budget cinema than most, this was still more chore than pleasure.

Dir: Mark Cantu
Star: Allison Gregory, Jason Scarbrough, Ione Rousseau, Larry Garza

M.F.A.

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“Like father, like daughter”

I say the above, since the father of the star here is Clint Eastwood, possibly the most famous vigilante in cinematic history. He gave us Dirty Harry, who memorably spat out lines such as, “When an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard – that’s my policy.” This apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Though Noelle, the art student who becomes an avenging force after being raped at a party by a fellow student, takes a little longer to get to that point of unrepentant street justice. Her first victim is purely accidental, her attacker falling over a balcony after she confronts him, in the hope of getting some kind of apology. Doesn’t happen, and his death doesn’t exactly cause her sorrow. When she realizes she is also far from alone in what she has gone through, she decides that active retaliation is the best approach.

There’s something particularly timely about watching this, the same week that the truth about Harvey Weinstein finally came out. For it’s clear that the film world is far from the sole province of jackasses who use their power to abuse women: the music business, for example, is no better, and colleges appear to be another rat-fest. Yet despite this, the script here is considerably more measured than I expected. Given the current climate, I certainly wouldn’t have blamed writer McKendrick (who plays Noelle’s room-mate Skye too) for going off on a misanthropic rant about #AllMen. It’s to her credit she doesn’t, adopting instead a laudably nuanced approach. The men here run the gamut from good to bad – perhaps more surprisingly, so do  the women. The campus victim support group is entirely useless; the college psychiatrist is worse still, actively engaged in suppressing incidents so they don’t enter the public record.

Even the vigilantism at the film’s core is not portrayed as universally the right thing. The film suggest it may do more harm than good when you carry it out on behalf of other people – perhaps doing more damage by re-opening wounds they are trying to heal. For some victims would rather forget it and move on, writing off their experience as “one shitty night,” and refusing to let it define who they are. Noelle’s action robs them of the ability to do that, arguably an abuse of power in another way. It’s all remarkably complex, and the film doesn’t shy away from any of the mess. I haven’t even discussed how Noelle takes her experience and transforms it through her (initially mediocre) art, truly a case of the Nietzschean aphorism, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

It’s all far more thought-provoking than I expected, and it helps there’s something of a young Angelina Jolie about Eastwood, between her high cheekbones and expressive eyes. Though it did take me virtually the entire movie to figure out what the title meant; I’ll spare the torment and let you know it’s a peculiarly American phrase, being an abbreviation for “Master of Fine Arts.” In the UK, there’s nothing “fine” about those degrees, they’re just M.A’s. Never let it be said we don’t educate as well as entertain here…

Dir: Natalia Leite
Star: Francesca Eastwood, Leah McKendrick, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Welch

I Spit On Your Grave 2

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“Model prisoner.”

This sequel is almost entirely unrelated to the original, beginning with a new, fresh character who will be tortured within an inch of her life, before escaping and roaring back for revenge. However, it manages to be a little more coherent, even as it replaces the redneckophobia of the original, with much more straightforward xenophobia.

The victim here is Katie Carter (Dallender), a wannabe model who takes advantage of a free photography portfolio session, offered by sleazy, Eastern European cameraman Ivan (Absolom) and his assistant, Georgy (Baharov). The latter becomes obsessed with her, and won’t take no for an answer. When Katie’s screams alert her apartment building’s caretaker, he’s stabbed by Georgy, leaving Ivan to clean up the mess. Still, it’s nothing that a large crate, stamped “Bulgaria”, can’t solve… When Katie discovers what’s awaiting her in Sofia, she’ll wish she’d been the one left in a pool of blood.

The narrative here is a bit more coherent. For instance, an early scene establishes that Carter is no shrinking violet, being a Midwest girl who knows a thing or two about hunting vermin. We also get to see more of the period between her escape, and her returning to take action – she survives with the help of a kindly local priest. He’s about the only Eastern European character here who is not an utter scumball, and in that aspect, I was reminded a fair amount of the first Hotel movie.

Initially, I thought it was going to spend the entire film in New York, and that might not have been a bad thing. Monroe is good at capturing the “urban jungle” aspect of the city, in much the same way as Abel Ferrara. There are a number of elements early on that brought Ms. 45 to mind, with that classic of the rape-revenge genre also having a sequence in a photographer’s studio. Dallender has the kind of willowy steel look as Zoe Tamerlis, too. It’s a shame it didn’t retain that approach, instead of becoming some kind of cautionary tale about foreign travel.

Once it leaves that setting, however, and scurries off to Sofia, the film becomes less interesting, more or less going down the same path as the original. Indeed, some of the beats are exactly the same, e.g. the heroine appears to find sanctuary in an authority figure, only to have that yanked away from her. Some of the resulting unpleasantness is hard to watch – please note, I’ve seen more than my fair share of cinematic nastiness, so I do not squirm easily – and that applies on both sides of the brutality. But its impact is never more than a visceral shudder. To be truly effective, it needs to pack an emotional punch as well, and in the main, that’s not present. It’s technically solid, and that may be part of the problem; it perhaps should be a little less polished, and rougher around the edges, in line with the content.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Jemma Dallender, Yavor Baharov, Joe Absolom, Aleksandar Aleksiev

I Spit On Your Grave

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“The Hills have thighs.”

Having been pleasantly surprised by I Spit on Your Grave 3: Vengeance is Mine, I thought I should rewind and catch the first two films in the series, see if they were also above expectations. Sadly, the answer is “not really”. The first, in particular, suffers as a direct remake of the notorious original, directed in 1978 by Meir Zarchi (originally released, to little attention, as Day of the Woman). It fails from our perspective for much the same reasons, mostly through being more interested in the rape than the revenge. Though there is a certain, nasty inventiveness to the latter, which salvages the final third.

Writer Jennifer Hills (Butler) moves into to a remote cabin she has rented, in order to have peace and quiet while she pens her next book. Before she has even arrived there, she has crossed paths with the local rednecks, a trio led by Johnny (Branson). Things escalate from there, until the trio – along with the “developmentally-challenged” local plumber, burst into Jennifer’s house, and brutally assault her. She manages to flee, seeking sanctuary, only for things to go from bad to worse. But she is just able to escape with her life, falling into a creek and vanishing from her assailants.

At this point, she effectively vanishes from the film as well, which is part of the problem. There’s a logical gap here, in need of explanation. Who takes care of her? And if she’s working on her own, how is a skinny little thing like Jennifer, whose background is entirely in writing (rather than – oh, I dunno – construction), capable of dragging around the unconscious bodies of the men as she takes her revenge? I mean, she suspends one of them up in the air, dangling over a bathtub like a trussed chicken. That’s not trivial. I did enjoy the imagination in the savage vengeance, which does surpass that of the original. We get a face dissolving, fish-hooks and the ol’ rape by shotgun. Jennifer is not messing around, shall we say.

It’s a shame the film didn’t emphasize the intellectual angle a bit more. Initially, it seems that Hills’s brain is the threat to the locals, who have no idea how to handle or even interact with someone who is clearly their mental superior. However, any efforts in this direction are rapidly abandoned, in preference for her simply being physically attractive. Post-attack, too, it doesn’t really appear she’s using her brain, so much as feral cunning. It certainly does go a long way to explaining how royally screwed-up Jennifer is by the time Butler revisited the character (under a different director) in Part 3. Yet, it’s also clear that the lengthy depiction of the abuse suffered by the character does as much to detract from as emphasize the reasons for that damage.

Dir: Steven R. Monroe
Star: Sarah Butler, Jeff Branson, Daniel Franzese, Rodney Eastman

The Dominion Rising collection

I am a sucker for bulk-buying. Regular readers will know this, since one of the first things reviewed here was the Women Who Kick Butt DVD box-set, which was a mixed bag, to say the least. But it did introduce me to Sister Street Fighter, so I consider the effort well-spent. So when an offer popped up on my Kindle app, giving me the chance to purchase no less than twenty-three novels for the low, low pre-purchase price of 99 cents, it didn’t take me long to click on ‘Buy Now’.

Kinda regretting that decision. Not due to quality (at least, not so far), and not due to a lack of action heroine content. It’s just that there is an insane amount of content in the Dominion Rising collection. Amazon lists it at 5,563 pages, which at my low rate of reading (it’s a good day if I get 25 minutes in) is probably close to a year before it’d be finished. Rather than waiting for that, I’ve opted to review the individual items as I finish them – as long as they meet the usual site criteria, and I can find some kind of artwork with which to illustrate the piece. They’ll appear both as stand-alone reviews, and below.

One thing I am noticing already – and it’s rather annoying – is the tendency for the stories here to be incomplete, frequently ending on cliff-hangers, rather than offering a fully-formed and finished tale. It may seem churlish to complain, when I paid less than a nickel per book. But the discount box-sets of DVDs that I’ve bought, don’t cut off the movies after 60 minutes, and then require you to buy the last reel at a higher price. Even if I’m somewhat enjoying a story, an abrupt ending followed by an exhortation to buy volume two, is not likely to have the desired impact. Finish off telling a good story, and the odds of me buying more from you are significantly better.

Below, find the full list of contents, which will be read in order – titles struck through are ones that didn’t qualify for the site, and will be skipped.

  • Reign of Steel and Bone by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
  • Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
  • Sorcery & Science by Ella Summers
  • Spectral Shift by Daniel Arthur Smith
  • Petra: Immortal Codex, Book 1 by Cheri Lasota
  • Infinite Waste by Dean F. Wilson
  • Girard The Guardian by Ann Christy
  • Flicker by Rebecca Rode
  • Star Compass by Anthea Sharp
  • Vengeance: Warships of the Spire by S. M. Schmitz & Lisa Blackwood
  • Touching Infinity by Erin Hayes
  • Death Plague by K. J. Colt
  • Curiouser and Curiouser by Melanie Karsak
  • Ultras by Timothy C. Ward
  • Maze: The Waking of Grey Grimm by Tony Bertauski
  • Blood for Stone by Logan T. Snyder
  • The Incurables by Felix R. Savage
  • Ferromancer by Becca Andre
  • The Other by Marilyn Peake
  • New York by J.C. Andrijeski
  • Rift Cursed by Margo Bond Collins
  • The Zoo at the End of the World by Samuel Peralta
  • Iron Tamer by Tom Shutt (incomplete)

Authors: Various
Publisher: Pronoun, available through Amazon as an e-book only. Some entries may also be available individually, as noted in their entries below.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

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Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

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Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Reign of Bone and Steel by Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

This certainly doesn’t waste any time, starting in the middle of a brutal pitched battle between the kingdom of Yatres, and their mortal enemies, the Nyhans. Among the Fae – basically, elves – in the former army is the warrior Caeda, and it’s her side that emerges victorious. But the price paid by the fallen on both sides is an ugly one. Their souls are absorbed through a magical sword, wielded by the Fae known as the Soul-Reaper, and fed to an artifact called the Bone. The trinity of Bone, sword and Reaper have helped sustain Yatres’s power down the centuries.

But while the nation is celebrating its victory, the Soul-Reaper is killed and the Bone stolen. Worst of all, for Caeda, the sword – which is intelligent, telepathic and very chatty – chooses her as the new Soul-Reaper. Caeda and her new pointy pal have to figure out who was responsible, before the power in the Bone can be wielded by the state’s enemies. Yet the more she interacts with the sword, the more she realizes that the soul energy powering Yatres is morally indefensible. Caeda comes to realize, the only legitimate thing she can do, is ensure the Bone is not returned to the service of her king either.

It’s an unusual mix of fantasy and whodunnit, with no small helping of romance. Caeda falls for Dominik, the scion of a the King’s closest advisor (who may, or may not, be involved in the Bone theft); unfortunate, since he is already engaged to be married to the Princess Taliesin. To be honest – and, let’s face it, as usual – this is likely the weakest element in my eyes. The heroine is a supposedly kick-ass warrioress, and certainly proves capable on that front, when necessary: in a world ripe with magic, it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t have any such skills. Given her apparent self-reliance, the speed with which Caeda melts into making moist, googly eyes at Dominik is almost embarrassing. The book also ends painfully abruptly, as if the authors had reached a predetermined word-count, though this is more likely a misguided effort to flog volume two.

It’s a shame, as this wasn’t bad until the cliffhanger which serves no purpose other than commercial. Pierre and White do a nice job of world-building, and the borderline insanity of the intelligent sword, a result of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its creation, was particularly effective. Imagine having Gollum inside your head 24/7, and you’ll understand why the usual fate of Soul-Reapers involves being driven to insanity. Indeed, there’s a little from Lord of the Rings in the overall concept, with the hero(ine) seeking to destroy a powerful device which could be used for evil. However, the undercover nature of Caeda’s mission, which she can only share with a trusted few, is a good twist, and there’s enough fresh here to make for an enjoyable read.

Author: Erin St Pierre and Gwynn White
Publisher: CreateSpace, available through Amazon as a printed book. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Mind Raider by S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I’m not sure if the problems here are a result of there being two authors credited on this story. It could certainly explain them. For rather than providing a single coherent vision, this feels like both its universe and characters are being pulled in too many different directions. It’s overstuffed with ideas and, instead of them being developed fully, scurries from one to the next, as if the writers were competing to have the final word. This comes to an end in a rather ludicrous finale. There, the entire plot takes a right turn, with the biological weapon which has formed much of the early focus all but discarded.

The heroine is Keva Duste, an “engineered human,” who was originally pod-grown for use as a super soldier. However, she proved able to over-ride her programming so was discarded after refusing an order. And by “discarded”, I mean tossed into space. From there, she was fortuitously rescued, and began a new life as an agent working for the Syndicate. This is one of a number of murky groups, including the Elite and the Families, who are waging a proxy war for power around the network of planets and space stations which are the setting here. None of them seem to have the population’s interests at heart.

She’s sent undercover to an Elite planet, to find out information about the bio-weapon mentioned, which will shortly be tested on an unsuspecting batch of subjects. However, troubled by an increasing moral compass, she goes off-mission and also rescues Dothylian, the new wife of the not very nice Elite (to put it mildly) on whom Keva is spying. This causes problems all its own, partly because of Dot not being fit for the harsh world of the “Black”, where Keva operates. And partly due to the increasingly self-aware AI she brings with her, which has an agenda of its own.

I found it all kinda annoying. Ideas and concepts like the “slip drive” are hurled at the reader, without adequate explanation, and the focus bounces around, to diminishing effect. There is some a bit of decent tension built up when Keva is on the Elite planet, because her undercover identity is that of a dead woman. Anyone who knows that will be understandably surprised to see the corpse walking around, so it’s a very risky situation. For a genetically-engineered super-soldier though, especially one with a permanent connection to a high-powered AI in her head, she doesn’t seem to make much use of her talents. There’s rather more of Keva moping around her spaceship, and unresolved sexual tension with Captain Hale.

From reading interviews with the authors, it appears one wrote and the other edited, so my theory about competing pages doesn’t seem to be valid (much though it’d explain the deficiencies). I’ll split the blame here, with perhaps a little more going to the editor, Tyler. She should perhaps have spotted and corrected the structural issues that rendered this more chore than pleasure at about the half-way point, and turned into a real slog in the final stretch.

Authors: S.M. Blooding & P.K. Tyler
Publisher: Macmillan, available through Amazon as an e-book only. It also forms part of the Dominion Rising collection for Kindle.

Altitude

starstarstar
“Fly the unfriendly skies.”

If you ever wanted to see Denise Richards brawl with MMA star Chuck Liddell, or even the daughter of Frasier, this film delivers. For Richards plays FBI hostage negotiator, Gretchen Blair, who is being ignominiously sent back to Washington after willfully disobeying orders during a siege. She ends up sitting next to the increasingly-nervous Terry (Barker), who offers her $50 million if she helps him get off the plane alive. For he knows it’s about to be hijacked by Matthew Sharpe (Lundgren) and his cronies, who will stop at nothing to retrieve the item which Terry took from them. It’s up to Gretchen, with the dubious help of an air marshal on his third solo flight, to stop their plan.

Far from the first film of its kind – Passenger 57, with Wesley Snipes, most obviously comes to mind – this starts off almost as a self-aware version of the genre, and is all the better for it. Witness, for example, Jonathan Lipnicki’s brief cameo as one of those super-perky flight attendants everyone hates, the cold, dead eyes of Sharpe’s lead henchwoman, Sadie (Grammer), while she has to pretend to be a stewardess, or Blair’s rant at the passenger who occupies her prized window-seat. It’s clear the writer has flown a lot. More of this, as well as further examples of Arnie-esque one-liners such as “You need to adjust your altitude, bitch!” and we could have had a cult classic.

Unfortunately, as things proceed, it loses a bit of its quirky charm and becomes just an increasingly implausible actioner. I mean, a plane taking off with the escape slides deployed is one thing; passengers escaping from the aircraft while it does so? I also wonder who, exactly, cleared and prepared the wilderness runway on which Sharpe lands the plane, surely the work of hundreds of people over a significant period. Richards is surprisingly credible here, especially if you remember her utterly unconvincing turn as Ph.D Dr Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough. However, it’s former Miss Teen Malibu Grammer who is outstanding here among the villains for her lack of scruples, not least because Lundgren – presumably now too old for this shit – spends almost the entire time in the cockpit. Though him flying the plane through a thunderstorm, while the score plays Ride of the Valkyries, was a nice touch.

The plane on which 90% of this takes place, already lends itself to a claustrophobic setting, but Merkin seems to prefer to push the camera in too close to the action, and in half-darkness. I suspect the stand-ins may have been involved, since looking at the IMDb, even Liddell, who plays another of Sharpe’s minions, had two stunt doubles. By the time this finishes – likely no spoiler to say there’s a giant fireball involved – its welcome has just about been exhausted. Yet there has been enough wit and energy to make this qualify as a pleasant surprise, one which surpassed my (admittedly low) expectations.

Dir: Alex Merkin
Star: Denise Richards, Kirk Barker, Greer Grammer, Dolph Lundgren

What Happened to Monday

starstarstarstarhalf
“Seven Noomis for the price of one!”

In the future, overpopulation becomes such a problem that strict limits are placed on children per family. You are only allowed one, with any others being taken by the authorities and put into “cryosleep”, so they will no longer consume resources until the situation has been addressed. After a woman secretly gives birth to septuplets, their grandfather, Terrence Settman (Dafoe), brings them up, rigidly schooling their actions so they remain under the radar. Each gets to go out on the day of the week corresponding to their name e.g. Monday on Monday, etc. On their return, they share with their siblings the events of the day, so the illusion can be sustained. 30 years later, with their grandfather gone, the seven women have evaded capture, though tensions between the different personalities are growing. Then, one evening, Monday simply doesn’t come back. The following day, neither does Tuesday. The remaining sisters have to try and figure out what’s going on, without exposing themselves.

There are strong hints of Orphan Black here, the TV series in which Tatiana Maslany played multiple clones, with distinct personalities, who end up working together to uncover a conspiracy. That ran for five seasons, truly flogging a dead horse into the ground, and the concept works a good deal better at the two hours for which this runs. Though even here, the third quarter does somewhat run out of steam. The main pleasure is the seven different versions of Rapace – and, indeed, the seven mini versions seen in flashblack, played by Read. Watching them bickering around the dinner table is a marvel on both technical and acting levels. Despite limited screen time, Rapace imbues them with distinguishing characteristics that mean you can tell the players without a scorecard. Though, again, the third quarter gets rather murky in this area, especially when two versions start rolling around, brawling with each other.

Wirkola is best known for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (a film which, like the Resident Evil series, performed much better overseas), and has a similarly stylish grasp of the action here. Though not all the seven sisters are action-oriented, some of them most definitely are. The highlights are a chase through the streets of the city, and a misguided attempt by the authorities to storm the apartment where the sisters are embedded. It does not go well. These sequences likely work rather better than the plot. As well as my doubts a subterfuge like this could be sustained for three decades, despite Settman’s undeniable commitment to it, I must confess I’m with Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close), head of the Child Allocation Bureau. She points out the grandfather’s actions are thoroughly selfish: he feels that rules for the necessary good of all, should only apply to other people, not his descendants. The story likely also needs a better antagonist: someone against whom the Noomis can directly battle. Cayman is largely absent and operating at just too much of a distance to qualify.

There’s still more than enough here to appreciate, with a well-crafted dystopian world which seems not implausible – see China’s “one child policy,” for instance. But it’s really Rapace’s show, and the actress builds on the intensity shown in the Millennium Trilogy. She seems to have both a fondness and a talent for action: Noomi likely has as good a claim to being the current Queen of European Action Heroines as anyone.

Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Star: Noomi Rapace, Clara Read, Marwan Kenzari, Willem Dafoe