Staff Sergeant Belinda Watt, by Tom Holzel

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

This self-published novel was recently donated by the author to the library where I work, a kindness that we appreciate. The author and I are both members of the Action Heroine Fans group here on Goodreads, and I was intrigued by his posts there about the book. Understanding (from experience!) the frustrations of waiting for reviews in today’s glutted book market, and being a fan of kick-butt female protagonists myself, I’d hoped to help him out with a good review, though he didn’t donate the book with any such expectation. As my rating indicates, my reaction wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, so I would have refrained from writing a review at all; but Tom graciously indicated that he didn’t have a problem with a less than stellar review.

I’ll say at the outset that if you like to discover the plot of a novel (as opposed to the basic premise) for yourself as you read it, I would NOT advise reading the cover copy, which gives away a fair bit of the plot. Suffice it to say that our chronological setting is the year 3177. Chapter 2 begins –and Chapter 1 is just a one-page set-up; chapters here tend to be quite short, which helps the plot flow quickly– with our title character, a cook from Idaho in the Galactic Federation army (who’s recently been discovered to have extremely good natural marksmanship skills with a rifle) being acquitted by a court-martial of murder charges in the killing of her commanding officer, General Bloodworthy. The physical evidence overwhelmingly proved that General Bloodworthy had been raping her at the time. But the late General was the head of the Guardian Council, a semi-secret cabal of “right-wing” army officers who are suspected of self-serving and illegal behavior aimed at advancing and protecting their own members; and their power within the military makes them “virtually unstoppable.” Since it’s pretty plain that the Council will murder Belinda in retaliation for Bloodworthy’s death, Intelligence officer Lt. Col. Andrew Jackson Jones conceives the idea of spiriting her off-world for her own protection. (Why an Intelligence officer is serving on the Judge Advocate’s staff in the first place is only one of several unexplained problems here.) So these two characters take off for the stars, and the plot takes off along with them.

Holzel’s fictional universe has similarities to that of many other writers in the SF tradition: FTL space travel, a galaxy-spanning Federation, etc. But he puts his own original spin on this. Here, the Federation extends into several different galaxies, reachable by navigating through wormholes associated with black holes. There are, however, not very many habitable planets out there, and the few there are are populated by alien species that are all pretty much humanoid (this is explained by convergent Darwinian evolution adapting them all to similar conditions). Earth turned out to be the most technologically advanced of the lot (that, and the distances involved, might serve as a plausible explanation for the old chestnut about why, if there are alien civilizations out there, we’ve never picked up their radio waves, though Holzel doesn’t mention this). Jones and Belinda’s destination is the far-off, Jupiter-sized planet Magnus, a major source of a mineral that’s critical to FTL travel. The planet’s ultra-rapid rotation reduces its gravity around the equator to Earth-like levels, and its extremely strong magnetic field prevents electricity from being transmitted on the planet’s surface. As this discussion indicates, this novel is very much in the “hard” SF tradition. The effects of the planetary conditions on local technology are worked out in some detail, which will please fans who like that sort of thing. (Personally, I’m much more of a “soft” SF fan.)

I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to understand or evaluate much of Holzel’s above use of actual science, though I would say that it comes across as plausible. My interest in fiction, in this or any genre, is more in the human and literary elements of the stories. On that level, the plot is predictable, has serious logical gaps (beginning with the fact that the military even tolerates the Guardian Council to begin with, or that they would let a serving soldier simply go off planet with no orders), and IMO makes excessive use of coincidence. Some readers have found Belinda too passive; I’m not sure that criticism is entirely fair, since she grows here from a fairly naive and passive young woman to a greater maturity. But the characterizations are not well-developed, and I particularly don’t feel the romance as believable. (Jones treats Belinda with a degree of duplicity and manipulation that’s more or less treated here as just an example of how boys will be boys, but which I don’t think most women would or should accept.)

No serious Intelligence officer would confide his mission to total strangers the way Jones does twice here; and I seriously question whether it’s physically possible for one crucial plot point to have happened the way it did. The Galactic Federation’s policy of paternalistically controlling interstellar trade (to “protect” other species from the “bad” competition) and Exporting Democracy strikes me as a naive extension of the worst aspects of globalist American foreign policy extrapolated onto an inter-galactic scale, and the cavalier attitude of the characters towards mass destruction of innocent life with a tactical nuke was a really serious negative for me. There are also repeated editing issues, numerous plot points that are inadequately explained, and not much world building outside of the technological area. (A minor quibble is the unexplained variation in Belinda’s name, which seems to be random; I could understand “Bea” as a plausible nickname, but she’s also sometimes “Linda” rather than Belinda.)

On the positive side, I was interested enough in the story to finish it. There’s a certain amount of bad language (though I don’t recall any obscenity –there might be some I’ve forgotten) including religious profanity, but it’s probably within the bounds of realism for the milieu. Although there’s no explicit sex, there are sexual situations, and Belinda tends to be a frequent target of sexual harassment and rape attempts. However, this isn’t condoned, and it’s dealt with forcefully. I don’t think the “moral tendency” of the novel would be to encourage that sort of thing in any sense.

Author: Tom Holzel
Publisher: Self published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

Warning –my review doesn’t contain any spoilers for this book, but it does divulge a major series plot development from the preceding book!

In the 10th century B.C., the kingdom of Sheba (or Saba –the S and Sh sounds were still fluid in the Semitic alphabets of that day) straddled the Arabic and African sides of the southern entrance to the Red Sea, and enjoyed considerable income from its control of that trade route. Both the Old Testament books of I Kings and II Chronicles record a state visit by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Neither of these writers record her name (it varies in the legends, but the most common name given is Balkis or Belkis –English transliterations vary) or much about her, and written records from Sheba at this time have not survived; but she’s also mentioned in the Koran. Jewish, Arabic and Ethiopian legends (the latter written down in the ancient writing Kebra Negast, or “Glory of Kings”) some of which probably preserve actual handed-down oral history, greatly elaborate the story, and the latter makes Solomon out to be the father of her son and heir, Menelik. (The royal house of Ethiopia historically claimed descent from Solomon through Menelik.) The legends of the Masai and other African peoples south of Ethiopia also credit Menelik with a great (and obviously historically memorable) expedition through their territories. This real-life material provides the basis for Jade del Cameron’s fifth adventure.

It’s now the autumn of 1920, and an American silent film company is in Nairobi, preparing to journey south (into what is today the country of Tanzania) to fabled Mount Kilimanjaro, there to film a movie, set partly in ancient and partly in modern times, based on a supposed legend of Emperor Menelik having climbed the mountain to die and be buried near the summit with his treasure. Ever ready to visit other African locales to do an article and photo shoot for “The Traveler” magazine –based on the real-life magazine of that era “Travel”, as Arruda mentions in her fascinating-as-always Author’s Notes– Jade’s agreed to go along as second-in-command (with primary responsibility for looking after the expedition’s female members) to the group’s guide –though she’s less than delighted to learn that the guide is Harry Hascombe, whom series readers have met before. The trip will also give her a chance to think seriously about, and hopefully finally sort out her mixed feelings, about her beau Sam Featherstone’s marriage proposal. But shortly before departure, things get off to an ominous start with a strange murder-suicide just outside Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club.

Much that I’ve said in my reviews of previous books in the series applies to this one, too. All the things that attract its fans are here: a strong, tough heroine with admirable character and with the guts and physical conditioning to handle dangerous challenges (yes, that knife in her boot on the cover picture is going to have to come out of its sheath!), well-drawn and sometimes likeable supporting characters, adventure and danger in a well-realized exotic setting, chaste romance, good writing with bad language kept to a minimum and no explicit sex, an undercurrent of supernaturalism and mystery that never turns the book into supernatural fiction but that adds a dash of that flavor. But I can say that this is one of the strongest books in the series, and presents one of the best constructed mystery plots –in several of the books, I fingered the culprit early on (and twice in the first chapter!), but I didn’t here! This one kept me guessing (wrongly) almost down to the wire. The behind-the-scenes look at the film industry of the 1920s enhanced the book; and though I didn’t recognize the tie-in to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (never having read that story) until the Author’s Notes explained it, I can recognize now that it was masterfully done. I also appreciated the personal growth here of Jade’s young Kikiyu friend, Jelani.

There are only (so far) two more books in this series; Barb and I have already started reading the sixth installment, The Crocodile’s Last Embrace. I’m hopeful Arruda will eventually write more of them; Jade’s a heroine we both want to keep on spending time with!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library (Obsidian imprint), available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Forest Child, by Heather Day Gilbert

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

“A cleaved head never plots.”

“I swear to you, this death will be avenged. And not in the afterlife.” –Freydis Eiriksdotter

Most readers with any knowledge of early American history are aware that Viking sailors, faring south-westward from Greenland, discovered mainland North America around the year 1000 A.D. No lasting settlements were made, but archaeologists have excavated the temporary settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland (probably the one referred to in the sagas as Straumsfjord). Our main contemporary historical sources for the Viking voyages to “Vinland” are two oral Icelandic sagas, committed to writing about 250 years after the events, which differ in details but basically present a common core of factual information. (The skalds who composed and transmitted the sagas weren’t composing fiction; they were recording history for an aliterate society, although they sometimes garbled or misunderstood details.)

Evangelical Christian author Heather Day Gilbert has taken these sagas, coupled with serious research into the Viking history and culture of that era, plausibly reconstructed a unified picture of the events they present, and brought it to life in a masterful historical series, The Vikings of the New World Saga, consisting of two novels, God’s Daughter and this sequel. Faithful to known facts, she uses her imagination to flesh them out, and to reconstruct believable personalities for the major and minor players in the events. (I’ve read modern re-tellings of the sagas, though not the sagas themselves, and could recognize persons and events in both books.) The first book focused on Gudrid, former pagan priestess (now a Christian) and healer; I wouldn’t really characterize her as an action heroine, though she does pack a blade and is psychologically prepared to fight if she has to. However, this one focuses on her half-sister-in-law by a previous marriage, Freydis, out-of-wedlock daughter of Eirik the Red, and she’s most definitely a butt-kicking lady.

Historical fiction about real-life people uses imagination to reconstruct the details history leaves out, and especially the inner personalities and motivations that history may record imperfectly or not at all. The Icelandic sagas don’t remember Freydis kindly: she’s depicted as a vicious, treacherous psychopath who becomes the New World’s first mass murderer. BUT…. 1.) No historians, medieval or modern, are wholly free from biases that shape their reaction to their material. Gender relations in early Scandinavian/Germanic and Celtic society, as reflected in these books, were comparatively more egalitarian and meritocratic than those of the “civilized” states of southern Europe. By the 13th century, though, when the oral sagas were being committed to writing, the more patriarchal and stratified attitudes of the latter were re-shaping thought and practice in the northern lands. To these historiographers, a woman who clearly didn’t fit their picture of proper gender roles may well have been seen as an obviously deviant villainess by definition, whose actions called for censorious treatment. 2.) Even some of the details recorded by the saga compilers themselves, if one reads between the lines, cast doubt on the supposedly innocent and pacific intentions of Freydis’ adversaries. And 3.), the two key conversations in the sagas that cast Freydis in the worst light, taken at face value, were totally private conversations that none of the original tellers of the material could actually have been privy to. They’re imaginative reconstructions, just as much as Gilbert’s dialogue is –and they’re reconstructions created by writers with an ideological agenda of their own.

Gilbert follows the factual account of events in the sagas faithfully (even including the two conversations I find suspect). But she fleshes out the picture with a more sympathetic vision, and a broader reconstruction of a plausible context, that gives us a very different picture of what (may have) actually happened on the Vineland coast a thousand years ago. The Freydis who emerges here isn’t an evil harridan, and isn’t psychotic. What she is is a tough-as-nails young woman who’s the product of a society that puts a premium on physical courage and fighting ability, who’s had to fight tooth and nail for anything she’s ever gotten, who didn’t feel loved as a child, never knew her birth mother, and doesn’t show love or give trust very easily, a female warrior (in her culture, that wasn’t a contradiction in terms) who killed men in combat while she was still in her teens, who doesn’t readily take orders from any man, woman, or deity, and who isn’t a total stranger to the effects of the special kind of dried mushrooms imbibed by Viking “berserkers” –which are as potent as modern-day “angel dust,” and just as dangerous. She’s also a smart, competent woman (it says something that she’s the expedition leader here, not her husband) with principles as strong as steel, and deep reserves of love and loyalty. And like all of us, she’s a woman on a spiritual journey … which might not end where it began. In real life, the Vikings of succeeding generations never forgot her. Modern readers probably won’t, either.

Gilbert brings Freydis’ world vividly to life here, without employing info-dumps or cluttering the narrative with excessive details. (She includes a family tree for Freydis and a short list of other characters in the back, along with a short glossary of Viking terms used in the text; but I personally didn’t need the former, and with my Scandinavian background, the latter only included a couple of words I didn’t know –and I’d roughly deduced the meanings of those from the context already. Even readers who haven’t read much about Vikings, I think, could guess the definitions of all these terms the same way.) This is a very taut, gripping read, with a lot of suspense in the first part even when you know the general outline of the history, and the plot continues to hold dangers and surprises up to the denouement and beyond. It’s written in first-person, present-tense, which puts us inside Freydis’ head and bonds us to her quickly. As in the first book, the characterizations are believable and vivid. All told, this is historical fiction at its finest! I give it my highest recommendation, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gilbert’s work.

I would strongly advise reading both books in order; they have many of the same characters, and it will help you as a reader to come to this book with the better and deeper understanding of the relationships, personalities and general situation that reading the first book will give you. Action heroine fans usually like other kinds of strong heroines as well, and Gudrid easily fits into that sorority.

Full disclosure: I was gifted with a free copy of this work by the author, just because she knew I wanted to read it. I wasn’t asked to give a favorable review (or, really, any review at all) –that had to be earned, and it was earned in abundance.

Author: Heather Day Gilbert
Publisher: WoodHaven Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Daughter of the Eagle, by Don Coldsmith

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

d-e-coverAlthough it’s self-contained enough to be read as a stand-alone, this is actually the sixth novel in Coldsmith’s popular Spanish Bit Saga, a multi-generational epic of the history of the Plains Indians after their culture is transformed by the coming of the horse, focusing on a tribe that calls itself (as most of them did) simply “the People.” (It’s a fictional, composite tribe, but probably modeled most closely on the Cheyenne.) In terms of style and literary vision, it has a lot in common with the series opener, Trail of the Spanish Bit, and the numerous other series installments I’ve read. However, it proved to be my favorite (and, I believe, my wife’s as well). Re-reading it, and re-experiencing parts I’d forgotten, was a reminder of how much I liked it the first time, and still do!

By now, our chronological setting is the late 1500s; we’re focusing on the granddaughter of Juan Garcia, the Spanish soldier who first introduced the People to the horse, and daughter of his older son Eagle (hence the book title). She’s known as Eagle Woman when the book begins, and will become Running Eagle later (in her culture, personal names can be changed with circumstances and status). When we meet her, she’s 19 (and the oldest girl in the tribe –or at least in her particular band of the tribe– still single). Like all children, both male and female, of her people, she grew up being trained in athletic pursuits and the use of weapons; she’s stronger and faster than most girls, and recognized as proficient with the bow.

Most men of hunting/fighting age among the People belong to the main warrior society. (The author does his usual excellent job of bringing the culture and its institutions to life here.) This group concerns itself with buffalo hunting –but also with tribal warfare, usually against the People’s traditional enemy, the Head-Splitters. (Unlike warfare in the European tradition, this isn’t concerned with political conquest, though jockeying for control of hunting territory plays a role in it; it’s more a matter of sporadic raiding to bring personal glory to warriors, and for stealing horses and slaves. But like all warfare, it’s a grim and ugly pursuit.) Our heroine is a “warrior sister” of the society, one of a few girls who take part in its rituals as priestesses. But for reasons of personal challenge and fulfillment, she makes a momentous decision near the beginning of the book: she’d like to take the unusual –but not culturally prohibited– step of seeking full warrior status in the society. This won’t necessarily require her to be involved as a member of actual war parties, and that isn’t her intended object in wanting to join. But the ways that circumstances develop are often not at all what people originally intend and expect….

One of my Goodreads friends who read this book wrote that she “couldn’t get into it.” That’s probably a result of Coldsmith’s writing style, which won’t be every reader’s cup of tea. He prefers straight narration to development of plot and characters through dialogue; so the latter takes a back seat to the former here. And where we have dialogue –and we have it, as needed– it tends to be terse and laconic, realistically reflecting the norm of a culture that devalued chatter and cultivated terse simplicity in everyday speech. Our three main characters are developed very well, IMO, but mainly by the author allowing us inside their heads, so we’re privy to their thoughts and feelings. This didn’t bother me; but if it would bother you, you may not “get into” the book either. Otherwise, the style is made to order for a quick read, with short chapters in 178 pages of text overall, and prose that doesn’t call attention to itself but carries you along on a white-water ride. The plot is exciting and increasingly suspenseful, and the literary craftsmanship first-rate (I considered the ending perfect!). There’s a good, clean romantic element; Long Walker is a fine leading male character, and the book has no issues of bad language or overly graphic content.

However, because Coldsmith is a male author, and he’s dealing with a plot in which rape occurs, some readers will find the latter fact problematical; it may be suggested that the only reason a male author could have to treat the subject at all is because of a morbid fascination with it, and/or that he’s “trivializing” it here. (Taken captive at one point, Running Eagle is subjected to sexual union with the enemy sub-chief who has a sick obsession with her, though the incidents aren’t directly described; she submits physically but not emotionally, remaining defiant, and isn’t reduced to emotional and mental ruin by the experience.) In the context of thousands of years of history in which women have repeatedly been victims of sexual violence, and a large percentage of present-day women have or can expect to be, sensitivity on this subject is completely understandable.

My honest response to the concern here would be that I think Coldsmith includes that component in his plot because in the historical setting it was a realistic danger that couldn’t be ignored, not because of any fascination with it (it’s glossed over too quickly to see it as being milked for any particular fascination); that he views it, and encourages the reader to view it, as evil and disgusting, and that he correctly sees it as being about power, not about normal sexual desire; and that the kind of female response to rape we have here doesn’t “trivialize” it so much as view it from a perspective of personal strength, in which a woman doesn’t choose to be self-marked or self-defined for the rest of her life by anything an enemy might do to her. Obviously, not all women, or all men, have that kind of inner strength; and anyone who’s left horribly psychologically scarred by traumatic abuse (of whatever sort) deserves our fullest compassion. But I personally think a response of personal strength provides a better role model for women in this situation than they get from, say, a writer like Thomas Dixon, with his advice to “defiled” rape victims that they commit suicide over it.

Author: Don Coldsmith
Publisher: Doubleday, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Literary rating: star
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

reina-novelDisclaimer at the outset: I haven’t read this novel from cover to cover. Seven years ago, I read the prologue and first three chapters; this time around, I read the first seven (re-reading the ones I’d read before), and skimmed the last ten and the epilogue –though I skimmed very thoroughly, taking about three hours and absorbing all of the major plot points. I feel qualified to give it a fair rating and review; but the level of bad language and grungy sexual content, blended with the tedious prose style and the wall-to-wall cynicism of the author’s literary vision (if we can call it that) made this too distasteful to read word-for-word any further.

Our title character here is Teresa Mendoza, who, when we first meet her, is a 22-year-old girl from Culiacan, Sinola, Mexico, a community dominated by the cross-border Mexican-U.S. drug traffic. Her boyfriend is a airplane pilot ferrying drugs for a local narco kingpin. But this boyfriend had a bad habit of defrauding his employer with side deals of his own and bragging about it when he was drunk; the prologue opens with her phone ringing to inform her that his boss has just had him killed –and that she’d better run, because the killers are on their way to dispatch her, too. Her resulting 13-year odyssey will take her to Spain (Perez-Reverte’s home country), see her eventually rise to control the drug traffic into and through southern Spain, and eventually bring her back full circle to the place of her birth and a reckoning with the past.

There’s a solid story here, which despite its seeming far-fetched improbability is plotted in a way that actually comes across as believable (except for Teresa settling and working in Spain under her real name, and not getting whacked within a matter of weeks!) and told with a few twists that I did not see coming, even though I’d skimmed the ending seven years earlier. The author appears to be extremely knowledgeable about the history and minutia of drug trafficking, at least up to 2002 when the novel was written (though he doesn’t quite understand that not all readers are necessarily as fascinated as he apparently is with every scrap of minutia). Teresa is a complex character, not one a reader will readily forget; and there are moments in the story that are quite emotionally evocative, even poignant.

However, the execution of the idea is wanting here, in several respects. First, Perez-Reverte gives us two interlaced narratives, Teresa’s own direct story in the third person and that of a journalist, in the first person, who’s piecing together her story from interviews with her (in the first chapter; most of the rest of her saga unfolds in flashback) and others who knew her. The actual meat of the story is in the former strand of narrative, however; the journalist’s really adds nothing except padding to bulk the book up to its 436 pages. There’s nothing of substance in his contribution that couldn’t have been conveyed much more economically, and with a more unified structure, by incorporating it into the third-person narrative. Every time we switch to his strand, there’s a marked loss of momentum and interest.

Even in the strand focused on Teresa directly, however, the prose is slow-moving, and detail heavy (about a third of the text could probably have been edited out without major damage, and it would have produced a quicker, more easily-flowing read). Given that it’s also peppered with constant f-words (probably incongruous for Spanish-language speakers) and other foul language and crude sexual content, both heterosexual and lesbian, for me it was a real chore to read as much as I did. Perez-Reverte (who’s the author of at least five other novels, though I haven’t read any of those) also affects a self-consciously “literary” style, with a lot of emphasis on his protagonist’s inner thoughts and on portentiously-described Significant Moments, which gets old quickly. In fairness to the author, the translator is probably responsible for the f-words and for the erroneous use of “clips” to describe ammunition magazines –and certainly for the frequent Spanish phrases left untranslated, apparently to give the text a Spanish flavor. (Most monolingual English-language readers would have preferred that he’d stuck to doing that with familiar words like “si” and “gracias,” that don’t need translation.)

reina-novel2For a writer who was so inclined, the subject matter here would be a gold mine for moral and social reflection. The storyline cries out for exploration of the (im)morality of a drug trade that corrupts and destroys every life it touches, of the roots of demand for drugs in modern society, of the inequities in Mexican government and society for which the drug trade is a symptom and a result, of the failure of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation or justice, and any number of other serious themes. Readers who bring the raw materials for such reflection with them to the book may indeed think about these things, but without any direct encouragement from the author. His basic message appears to be nihilistic cynicism; and if anything, he tends to glorify drug trafficking, in somewhat the same fashion as the “narcocorridos” that he quotes at times.

To the extent that he has a vision, it could fairly be summarized as: “Wow, Teresa is a tough survivor who climbs to the top of the heap against odds; isn’t she COOL?” Well –no. She is a tough survivor who can handle threatening situations with courage and resolution; she has intelligence and talents that could be put to more constructive uses than they get, and she demonstrates some instinctive basic decency in her face-to-face relations with people. But she’s incapable (or doesn’t want to be capable) of any reflection about the consequences of her actions for people who use the drugs she transports, and doesn’t come across as particularly likable or admirable in most ways that count. (We’re also asked to believe –unrealistically– that her own drug habit has no more psychological or physical consequences than chewing gum would have; and some readers probably will believe it, to their own detriment.) I wouldn’t characterize her as an evil villainess –but I wouldn’t call her a heroine or a role model, either.

Readers who frequent this site will, understandably, be interested in the book’s action component. I set Teresa’s kick-butt quotient at three stars as a matter of attitude; she’s pragmatic about the elimination of enemies, though unlike the drug lords of Sinola, she’s not into slaughtering their innocent families. (She may threaten it for effect, but the reader knows that on that score, her bark is worse than her bite; and she’s capable of mercy where others in her position might not have shown it.) But as far as any direct personal action on her part goes, she picks up and uses a gun here exactly twice, once near the beginning and once in the climactic shoot-out near the end. And that scene is described, in Perez-Reverte’s typically “literary” fashion, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style from a slightly befuddled viewpoint; he doesn’t handle the action with the clarity that some other writers would.

Author: Arturo Perez-Reverte
Publisher: Putnam, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A Shot Through the Heart, by J. C. Antonelli

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

shotheartThis book wasn’t on my radar until a friend recommended it. But it proved to be well worth the read –and further demonstrates that there are independent authors out there producing quality work, and who aren’t getting the notice they ought to. J. C. Antonelli is one of these! Hopefully, this review will give you an idea of whether or not the book would be up your alley. If so, the novel has the added advantage of being a stand-alone; reading it won’t suck you into a long series.

This is, unabashedly, modern pulp action-adventure, with a kick-butt female protagonist. That doesn’t mean it’s without serious moral reflection or psychological depth; it has some of both to offer. (Although it has a 17-18 year old protagonist, its significant bad language, sexual content, and violence mark it as an adult read, not a YA –though there are certainly teens of both genders who’d read it avidly.) It doesn’t stint on the physical action (with a high body count) though, nor on the gripping suspense. The snappy prose style and short chapters, and the storyline itself, compel the reader to keep turning pages; if I’d been able to, I’d have read it at one sitting. (And I did finish it in about a week, which is a pretty quick read for me!) It’s too bad fiction by independent authors is ignored by Hollywood as fodder for adaptations, because this would make a stem-winder of an action flick, which would probably be a box office smash.

We open with our heroine/narrator Samantha (“Sam”) wounded and bleeding in a fleabag Bucharest hotel room, waiting for shadowy killers to close in and try to finish her off. (But she’s got two pistols, and she’s not going down without a fight.) From there, she goes back a year to tell the story of how she got here, to the summer before her senior year of high school. Not having a driver’s license yet, to get out of the house and fight boredom, she got her dad to take her for an outing at a shooting range, using a coupon that came in the mail. That experience revealed that she has a natural talent for handling firearms: quick reflexes, a keen eye, and an instinctive ability to aim accurately, that would place her probably in the 99th percentile for naturally-gifted shooters. This evokes a LOT of attention, because this range happens to be a clandestine screening tool used for recruitment by a super-secret quasi-government agency. Its mission is the targeted assassination of large-scale evil-doers whose power and position makes them untouchable by legal channels –and they have a job in hand for which a pretty 17-year-old girl might actually be what the operation’s profile needs.

“Laid-back California girl” Sam’s a wonderfully drawn, complex, round and dynamic character, as real as any girl her age you might meet at your local mall. Yes, she’s flawed. She’s the product of her culture in some ways, with its prejudices and blind spots; she has a potty-mouthed speaking style, and has the issues that come from losing her mom at a very young age and growing up raised by an inept and emotionally distant dad (whom she truly loves, but whose faults she realizes). But she emphatically isn’t the borderline “sociopath” the organization’s psychiatrist considers her. True, when she thinks it’s justified, she’s quite capable of killing without any emotional distress.

However, she has genuine feelings and a conscience, a respect for innocent life, and people she cares about; and she approaches what she’s asked to do from within a serious moral framework. And while, like most of us, she can’t help taking pride in doing something she’s good at (which, in her case, is lethal combat), she doesn’t revel in hurting people as such –she’s compassionate even towards enemies’ pain. Having had to take a lot of responsibility from a young age, and natively smart (she scored 2200 on her SATS), she’s also more mature and grounded than many teens are. But she’s a believable teen, and a believable teen girl (I raised three, so I know something about the demographic) –not, as some critics snidely say about action-oriented female characters, especially those created by male writers, an essentially male figure disguised as female.

While Sam’s the only character whose head we get inside, Antonelli is able to make the rest of the cast (especially Tico) vivid and life-like as well. His plotting is taut, driving, well-constructed and twisty –complications, both logistical and emotional, are going to ensue. Though the book most definitely isn’t a comedy, he understands the uses of comic relief, and Sam’s wry narrative voice and quirky (sometimes off-color) humor provides it at times, as do the inherent incongruities of the situations. Being a keen and accurate observer both of herself and others enhances Sam’s effectiveness as a narrator. We have a variety of physical settings here, all brought to life pretty well, but the description is never intrusive.

The author clearly knows his weaponry (though he calls magazines “clips” –but that’s a common mistake), and writes clear, exciting action scenes; he doesn’t over-stress the gore of violent death –it is what it has to be, but he doesn’t rub our noses in it. Moral reflection about the ethics of extra-legal, vigilante killing in particular cases is serious, and adds depth to the book. (Though it’s not true that all or most religions have a blanket prohibition against killing.) Finally, the book puts Sam through a wringer of tough moral choices and emotional stresses that really challenge both her and the reader –I consider that a hallmark of superior fiction.

The idea of “insta-love” can be a problematic issue for readers, and there’s a romantic component here that develops in a quick time-frame. Honest love between two people has to have a basis, and that takes some time to develop and build. But the amount of time can vary with the people and circumstances. For the two principals here, their prior experience with the opposite sex has been largely fallow and unsatisfactory, and there’s a mutual perception that they want something different than what they’ve been offered in the past; the attraction is based on personal qualities rather than just physical appearance, and the circumstances are of the sort that would stimulate quick bonding. I don’t automatically believe in relatively “insta-love” just because an author wants to throw it into the plot; but I didn’t have a problem believing in it for this couple.

Notes: (Although there’s no explicit sex in the book, some non-explicit unmarried sex does take place; but it came across to me as being loving rather than exploitative and lewd. Bad language is pervasive; I lost count of the f-words, though there’s no religious profanity. Devout Catholic readers will be apt to be very offended by a passing thought of Sam’s about the Mass, evoked by a stressful mental comparison between the sight of red wine and of blood (though to a girl ignorant of theology, the whole idea of deliberately drinking blood would appear “crazy”).

Prolifers will strongly disagree with her advice to a pregnant friend to abort the baby; but it was well-intended advice –and the fact that her friend has the baby anyway makes a statement of a different sort, as well. Also, Sam makes a passing comment near the beginning that it would be wrong to assassinate Mother Teresa, but okay to do Rush Limbaugh (and by implication, anyone with right-of-center views); that will sit poorly with those readers whose views are right of center.

Author: J. C. Antonelli
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Blood Cross, by Faith Hunter

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

bloodcrossThe first book of this series was one of the best supernatural fiction reads, and best action heroine books, that I’ve ever read. It had me fully prepared to continue reading every installment of the series. This second novel picks up just a few days after the end of the first; the denouement of the latter was only the beginning in cleaning up some dark skullduggery afoot in the vampire community of Hunter’s slightly alternate New Orleans. As expected, this one thrust Jane into even more high-risk action and deeper into the mysterious secrets of the Undead race. But even though I gave it just one star less than the previous book, it was ultimately a disappointment, and I won’t keep on reading the series.

To be sure, the four stars are earned; this book has many of the same strengths as the previous one. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really like most of it, and almost to the very end, I fully intended to continue with the series. Hunter’s prose is as compelling and her plotting as strong as ever. The vivid sense of place, and the masterful evocation of the author’s world that draws you in for a complete immersion, is here too. Nor has her genius for characterization, skill at depicting human interactions, and ability to evoke emotional reactions from the reader deserted her. Her deft handling of the vampire mythos, and the exploration of the relationship of Jane and Beast, still fascinates. The serious exploration of Cherokee spirituality is a plus, and I appreciate Hunter’s continued restraint in the use of bad language. As always, she writes action scenes really well; I admire Jane’s prowess as a fighter and willingness to risk her life for things worth fighting for, and I continue to honestly like her as a person. (I did have an issue with the casual drug use of her occasional allies from the projects; in real life, I wouldn’t trust stoned or half-stoned fighters with automatic weapons anywhere near me. But that wasn’t my biggest problem with the book.)

As a person of faith myself, one thing that drew me to the series and to Jane’s character is the fact that she’s depicted as a professing, church-attending Christian. While she wasn’t pictured as a plaster saint (and I wouldn’t expect her, or anybody else in fiction or real life, to be one), the character portrayal in the first book was consistent with who she claimed to be. So nothing prepared me for being blindsided in this book by sexual behavior on Jane’s part (including unmarried sex, engaged in without any moral questioning) that’s totally inconsistent with her claimed Christianity, and which makes her seem, in places, as hormone-driven as the least responsible members of the adolescent community. The sexual content isn’t very explicit; and not in itself anything that would be all that shocking from a secular heroine (such as Modesty Blaise) who doesn’t base her sexual ethics on Christian beliefs, and doesn’t claim to. Coming from one who supposedly does, though, it’s feels like an exercise in false advertising, as if the author wanted to have it both ways to sell more books, with a heroine whose talk can bring in the religious readers and whose actions will appeal to the secular ones. I felt gypped and betrayed by that kind of cynicism, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Despite my disappointment with that aspect of the novel, it was a thought-provoking read in some ways, raising the question of what it means to be “human.” Because she’s a shapeshifter, Jane is told by one person, and thinks herself, that she isn’t human. But she’s a full-blooded Cherokee (which, if she’s not human, is a contradiction in terms!), and she’s physically, mentally and spiritually just as human as you and I are –she just happens to be differently abled in one respect. In my estimation, that doesn’t make her any more non-human than other people who are differently abled compared to me, like the majority of people who, for instance, can hear tonal differences in music that I can’t, or the small number of people who can guide themselves in the dark by echolocation (and yes, I thought that was strictly fictitious, too, until I learned that it isn’t). Related to this, I’ve often said that I don’t like super-hero stories, because I prefer heroes and heroines with human limitations and vulnerabilities. But I like supernatural yarns about vampires, werewolves, etc. –and the thought struck me, in reading this book, that the difference is less real than one might suppose. In a very real sense, Jane could be called a super-heroine, since she has abilities normal humans don’t. But she’s not SO super-enabled that she’s immortal and above human vulnerability. In the future, I think I might look at super-hero tales with a more nuanced perspective because of that insight!

Author: Faith Hunter
Publisher: Roc, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Leopard’s Prey, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

leopardsThis fourth installment of the Jade del Cameron series has much the same strengths and general style of the previous books. We find Jade back in British East Africa, a few months after the events of the third book, The Serpent’s Daughter, and again encounter our old friends from the first two books. She’s supplementing her writing income by using her lariat and photography skills to help Perkins and Daley, the two partners in a small company that secures African animals for U.S. zoos. But we sense early on that her sleuthing skills may also be called on again, with the discovery of the dead body of a merchant from Nairobi (1920 population, ca. 11,000 –white population, ca. 3,000). Is his death, as the authorities initially suppose, suicide –or murder? And where is his unhappy wife? And did she or didn’t she have a recent unreported, unattended childbirth? Inquiring minds want to know; and Jade has an inquiring mind, soon made more so by the fact that the lead investigator seems to consider her beau, Sam Featherstone, a prime suspect.

The mystery (or mysteries) here was more challenging than in the previous books; I was able to figure out the basic solution about the same time that Jade did, but not before. Jade will face life-threatening jeopardies, and get to display her action-heroine credentials before the book is over; she’s also learning to fly Sam’s biplane, to add to her accomplishments (and yes, she’ll get to fly solo here). Arruda isn’t simply marking time with this installment; there are significant developments in store for some of the secondary characters, and one for Jade herself.

In a couple of areas, Arruda touches on serious issues in this book, issues from a 1920 context, but which have continuing relevance. By 1920, wildlife in parts of Africa was already coming under pressure from the great influx of European settlement and urbanization, as well as the spread of European-style agriculture. This brought habitat destruction, and the killing of predators to protect livestock –the old Africa already at war with the new. For Jade, taking individual animals to safety in a zoo is a way to help protect their species from extinction. But she’s also painfully aware that from the standpoint of the animal, life in a zoo isn’t the same thing as freedom; something important is lost. This is a quandary the morality of which is still being debated, nearly a century later. And much more so than in the previous books, we’re brought face to face with the ugly injustices of British treatment of native Africans: subjected to arbitrary taxation without representation, payable only in British money, and solely designed to force the males over 13 into oppressive labor contracts with white employers; subjected as well to travel restrictions (in their own country), that leave them virtual wards of the British and bind the males to their jobs.

This has always been, and continues to be, a seriously researched series, in which the results of the author’s research are blended seamlessly into the narrative, creating a strong sense of place. Here, we have a close look at traditional Masai culture –not as immersive and detailed a literary experience as the exploration of Amazigh (Berber) culture in the previous book, but still fascinating to me. Arruda’s treatment of non-European cultures is realistic but respectful. As always, her concluding Author’s Note here is mainly an annotated description of the source material she used in writing the novel, which would be valuable to readers who want to learn more about Africa (and post-World War I Africa in particular).

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Ballad of Cat Ballou, by Roy Chanslor

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

catballouMy generation, raised on 1950s and early 60s TV, tends to think of the classic Western genre as a male preserve, where females were the gallant cowboys’ ever-so-meek love interests or damsels in distress, but where men wore the guns and did all the shooting, cow-punching and heavy work. This reflected a moment in American pop culture, post-World War II, when the cultural and socio-political elite of that day consciously cultivated a faux “traditional” cult of female home-bound domesticity and passivity (to encourage the myriads of “Rosie the Riveters” to butt out of the workforce and free up the jobs for the returning male ex-soldiers). But that state of affairs never reflected the actual reality of the Old West, a harsh and dangerous land that often demanded that both sexes step up to plate and take their share of both fighting and strenuous work. The work of earlier Western genre writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend) and pulp magazine authors like Les Savage Jr. often reflected that reality; and though written in 1956, this novel by Roy Chanslor (1899-1964), with its strong heroine, stands in that older tradition.

This is not, however, a novel of nonstop, slam-bang action from start to finish. On the contrary, Chanslor begins his story with his protagonist “Cat” (short for Catherine –she’s named after her mom) Ballou’s birth. (The titular folk “Ballad of Cat Ballou” that he quotes from, there and throughout the book, is completely fictional, as are the characters; but it imparts a mythic, larger-than-life quality to the narrative.) Then he goes back before that, to the days before her parents met, to help us understand the history of her family, the ill will between the Ballous and the Fields, and the nature of the world she was born into, in which the law was sometimes simply a perverted tool of the wealthy and powerful for plundering the weak, and where “outlaws” were sometimes only principled people fighting for their just rights. Our setting is Wyoming Territory; the localities of the main action are fictional, but supposedly in southern Wyoming, from clues in the text. Textual clues also suggest a date of ca. 1870 for Cat’s birth, and ca. 1886-87 for the crisis that ultimately confronts her. (The passing reference to territorial governor Ed Donaldson, however, isn’t a clue –no such name appears in the real-life roster of Wyoming’s governors!)

Chanslor uses an omniscient, third-person narrative voice, and a prose style that’s not unlike that of other Western writers of his generation –workmanlike, dignified without being stilted. He gives dialogue an authentic, colloquial feel, without resorting to heavy dialect. Not much attention is given to description of the natural world; the author’s focus is on the human world, and the thoughts, feelings and relationships of his characters. He’s also very good at creating an entire array of lifelike, nuanced characters, on both sides of the law (no simplistic “virtuous good guys in white hats and evil bad guys in black hats” here!). As in life, the storyline includes both tragedy and triumph. There’s violent death, and gun-play, in places (despite the cover art on the edition I read, Cat doesn’t wear or shoot a Colt here –but she’s as fast-shooting and as accurate with a rifle as any man); but it’s handled matter-of-factly, and as in the real world, it’s over quickly. (The results are what lingers.)

catballou2As is often the case with fiction that shows human beings involved in intense conflicts with life or death stakes, and making decisions about the use of deadly force, this novel brings to life very real questions about right and wrong, the relative primacy of law and order vs. justice, the moral obligations of humans to each other, the possibly conflicting claims of justice and mercy, the merits of being “fenced in” vs. freedom (and what exactly constitutes “freedom”), and what constitutes honorable behavior in difficult situations. Chanslor tends to point up right and wrong behavior by example rather than by exposition, though he does at times use Old Doc, Cat’s maternal grandfather, and Martha Babcock as mouthpieces for his opinions. In general, though, it’s clear that his own moral orientation is basically that of the traditional Code of the West, with a high value on respect for others’ rights, fair play, fidelity to one’s word, courage, and loyalty to family and friends. His attitude toward religion is aloof (Old Doc advocates reading Scripture “for the sound, not the sense”), but he’s respectful toward his preacher character, who’s definitely one of the good guys.

Romantic love plays a strong role in the tales of both Cat’s parents and her own story. In both cases, we’re dealing with situations of what could be disparaged as “insta-love.” As I’ve noted in other reviews, in pre-modern settings, what we think of as unrealistic “insta-love” could very often be true to life; men and women who didn’t expect to “date,” and who wanted matrimony rather than being afraid of it, learned to size each other up pretty quickly. Frankie and Catherine Ballou’s marriage, IMO, fits that pattern. Cat and her man’s union, though, strains the bounds of probability even for 19th-century attractions; and some of Cat’s attitudes and actions are those of a hormone-driven teen (she’s 16-17 at the time of her main story), not a responsible adult. I also felt Chanslor’s attitude was too cavalier in blithely excusing one character’s adultery when his wife was recovering from a miscarriage –I can understand the psychology of sexual deprivation, and don’t discount the value of forgiveness where penitence is genuine, but I don’t feel it’s “just being a normal male.” These points were what cost the book a star. In the main, though, the messages of the book promote sexual respect for women and glorify committed love in faithful marriage. Parts of the novel have an undercurrent of frank sensuality; but it’s monogamous sensuality that it celebrates.

I found the book a gripping read; there are moments of extreme suspense, and concern for the fate of characters you care about, and toward the end I read for longer than normal because I had to finish it! In some respects, this would actually make a great book for discussion groups to read together, because it can pose a lot to think about and discuss.

Note: Readers should be warned that the book has some d- and h-word bad language, and a fair amount of misuse of Divine names as well.

Author: Roy Chanslor
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.