The Hundredth Queen, by Emily R. King

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

An interesting premise gets wasted, buried under a muddied writing style which sets up in one direction, then abandons it for another. Orphan Kalinda has been brought up by The Sisterhood in their remote temple in the mountains (kinda Indian, kinda Sumerian, annoyingly non-specific), training in the ways of a warrior – though others have far more talent in the era. Her life is upended when the local monarch, Tarek, visits the temple and selects Kalinda to be his next wife. Next, as in he already has 99, not to mention his additional courtesans. The problem for Kalinda is, this sets up a tournament in which she can be challenged by the other women, who seek to supplant her.

The journey to Tarek’s palace is barely under way before two issues rear their head, that drive the plot the rest of the way. One is Kalinda falling into a forbidden love for Deven, the guard who’s escorting her. The other is her encounter with a “bhuta”. These are half-human, half-demons, who exist in four kinds, each possessing power over the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Might this, perhaps, be connected to the mysterious fevers from which Kalinda has been suffering from a child, only kept in check by her daily consumption of a potion?

Of course it is. For the book rarely strays from the obvious, virtually from the start when Kalinda immediately falls head-over-heels in love, with literally the first man she has ever seen. There’s no sense of chemistry here at all, or of a romance growing naturally out of the characters. It seems shoehorned in there because, dammit, it was on a checklist of things fantasy books need to be successful, which King found online somewhere. The interactions between Kalinda and the other women weren’t much more convincing, sitting somewhere between Mean Girls and The Hunger Games.

I’m not even clear on the details of the tournament, which is supposed to be the main plot device of the book. Who challenges who? What are the mechanics here? What does Tarek get out of it? It’s the ultimate plot-device, since his motivation for setting up the event is entirely obscure. It’s not as if he can exactly stream the event on pay-per-view. There are a couple of plot twists later on, that did manage to engage my interest briefly – these did help explain why Tarek picked Kalinda, when we had repeatedly been assured earlier of her plainness and lack of talent.

However, the actual competition is largely glossed over with a disapproving frown, culminating in a big, damp squib of pacifistic grrl power. This is less drama than melodrama, with every character being exactly what they appear to be, and possessing few hidden depths. The last third of this proved to be a particular slog, and it’s not a universe to which I’ll be returning in future.

Author: Emily R. King
Publisher: Skyscape, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Colossal

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“A giant conundrum.”

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gloria (Hathaway) holes up in her middle-American hometown. She gets a job in a bar, run by her childhood pal, Oscar (Sudeikis) – not that this employment does much for Gloria’s burgeoning alcoholism. Meanwhile, over in Korea, the city of Seoul is being plagued by a giant monster, which will appear out of nowhere, behave oddly, and then vanish again. Gloria eventually figures out that when she goes through a particular spot – a local children’s playground – at a specific time, the creature appears in Korea, and its actions reflect hers. Turns out Oscar can do the same, manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot, and he may not be as benign with his new-found powers, as Gloria is attempting to be.

This is a severe mess in terms of genre, and very difficult to put into any particular bucket. It’s part comedy, part drama, part fantasy – yet not sufficiently any of them to the point where I can confidently say it would appeal to fans of that kind of film. It is the kind of quirky role for which Hathaway is well suited, and Sudeikis does well, in a “low-rent substitute for Ben Affleck” kinda way. I just wish Vigalondo (whose time-travel flick, Los cronocrímenes, is one of the best of its kind) had taken the concept here and really run with the possibilities. I guess budget may have limited him there, but I’d like to have seen  Gloria and Oscar do more than standing around, waving their limbs somewhat. The trailer suggested a bit more than that.

I think this might be intended to be a parable for abusive relationships, with Oscar using controlling tactics and threats to ensure that Gloria doesn’t go back to the big city and/or her boyfriend there. Or perhaps Oscar is intended to represent the alcohol which is Gloria’s bête noire? You can more or less make up whatever you want here. And you’ll probably have to, because if this film doesn’t credibly explain how two people can project into South Korean monsters (it’s something to do with a childhood trauma, a smashed show-and-tell project and lightning), you know you’re not going to be given much in the way of character motivation.

Re-reading the above, it comes over as negative to a greater extent than it should. Gloria is a likeably flawed lead, I was kept interested, generally amused and occasionally impressed. Yet, it feels like a seriously wasted opportunity, something which could have ended up occupying a deliciously excessive and demented spot between Pacific Rim and Monsters vs. Aliens. Instead, it’s far lower-key and takes place on a surprisingly small scale, than anything involving a monster, hundreds of foot high, terrorizing an Asian city should. If your expectations are similarly restrained, this is likely to work better. I can state with a fair degree of certainty, you won’t have seen anything like it before. And once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why.

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell

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.

The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

Almost all the action heroine novels I’ve read of late have been Volume 1 in a series. While not necessarily a bad thing, this does tend to lead to a sense of unfulfilled resolution. “Happy ever after” is frequently replaced by a semi-cliffhanger, intend to separate the reader from their cash for Volume 2. It rarely works, and is more likely to annoy me. After all, I’ve invested significant quantities of time (if not perhaps money; these introductory items tend to be of the 99-cent variety, so I guess the buyer should beware) in each tale, and to be left dangling is frustrating. That’s why it was especially nice to read a book like this, which tells a complete story, with a beginning, a middle and a solid, satisfactory end.

It plays like a feminist version of a Grimm fairy tale. The heroine is 15-year-old Rhea, a miller’s daughter whose life is upended after a member of the local nobility, Crevan, requests her hand in marriage. This comes as a shock to everyone, not least Rhea. Her parents are hardly in any position to refuse, and Rhea is packed off to Crevan’s manor, where a further shock awaits her. As the title suggests, she’s not exactly the first proposal – and the other six women are still present on the estate, from which no escape is possible, since it’s like the fairy-tale version of the Hotel Californa. Nor are they in the same status as which they arrived, for Crevan has a very nasty agenda, taking one precious thing from each of his betrothed. There’s the clock wife, for example. And you probably don’t want to know about the golem wife. How can Rhea escape the fate of the previous brides, given she has never battled anything nastier than an upset swan?

The fairy-tale aspect is mostly in the characters. Rhea is good and pure and kind, like all the best princesses. Crevan is the archetypal “wicked stepmother” of proceedings: evil for no more particular reason than because the plot requires it. Indeed, he’s entirely absent from the great bulk of this, popping back occasionally to give Rhea a new task. But the heroine here is a good deal more pro-active than your classic Disney princess, and there is absolutely no Prince Charming, who’s going to sweep in and rescue her. She’s entirely reliant on her own wits, bravery and persistence, and the story is all the better for that. The feminist aspects are obvious, though are handled lightly enough to be non-didactic; Rhea’s problems are as much a result of class problems as gender ones.

The fantastic elements, such as the wild and bizarre domain where the clock wife resides, play more like Lewis Carroll. Indeed, I got a strong Tim Burton-esque vibe overall here; maybe Helena Bonham-Carter could play one (or here’s an idea – all?) of the previous wives. Kingfisher (the awkward name is actually a pen-name for Ursula Vernon, intended to separate works like this from the children’s books which are her bread and butter) has a darkish wit to her writing as well. That comes through particularly in Rhea’s internal monologues, and gives her a grounded and common sense feel, which is especially appealing. Ironically, it’s one of those cases where I wouldn’t actually mind further stories in the series.

Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Taryn St. Giles is an out of work archaeologist, who has taken up bounty hunting in order to pay the overdue rent, after the untimely death of her current patron. However, her latest target turns out to be considerably more than she can handle. For Alric is a master of both disguise and hand-to-hand combat, and Taryn’s pursuit of him rapidly entangles the heroine in a deepening web of magic and intrigue. The titular artifact – which doesn’t actually show up until well into the second half – is a potential gate, which could open a doorway and leave this world a thoroughly unpleasant place for just about everyone. Fortunately, Taryn has friends both academic and physically-inclined on her side, as well as a trio of semi-domesticated fairies. Though the last-named are engaged in their own war, with a local family of squirrels.

That last sentence should give you an idea that this is not a novel which takes itself, its world or its heroine entirely seriously. And that’s half the appeal, with Taryn being a snarky yet persistent little tomb raider, who is genuinely appealing. Her curiosity is forever getting the better of her – but she has to rely much more on her wits than any Lara Croft-esque antics. Well, except when intoxicated, when she gets a bit… strange. That change manifests itself in a couple of different ways, at least one of which proves essential to the plot at the climax. It’s the only true major set-piece in terms of direct action involving her, but Taryn’s other qualities – bravery, loyalty, inquisitiveness and a moderate resistance to magic – are sufficient to get her over the threshold here. Indeed, it came as a surprise in the middle of the book, when she explicitly stated she has “no real skill” with weapons.

This wasn’t the only unexpected twist. While there are references to trolls, elves, etc. it also turns out that one major character is mostly feline and another is (I think) snake. That aspect of the world could have been made a great deal clearer. Otherwise, however, Andreas has a good eye for quirky personalities. Particularly outstanding are the trio of fairies – Crusty Bucket, Garbage Blossom and Leaf Grub – and their monarch, “High Queen Princess Buttercup Turtledove RatBatZee Growltigerious Mungoosey, Empress of all.” Glorious.

Both Taryn and Alric appear to have their share of dark secrets buried in the past – very deeply buried, in her case. While I strongly suspect there will be more romantic tension down the road, those aspects are kept light here. Indeed, Taryn’s spectacular fail of a dating experience, chronicled here, would likely put me off the opposite sex for quite a while. It works perfectly well as a standalone book, building to an appropriate finale and wrapping up most of the immediate loose ends, yet leaving enough intriguing questions dangling. I’m left inclined to pick up the second volume.

Author: Marie Andreas
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

Daemonium: Soldier of the Underworld

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“…and one big cup of WTF?”

This is going to be a difficult review to write, and, for once, it’s the synopsis section which will be the problem. Because I can’t honestly say, with any degree of confidence, I know what was going on here. Rather than a standalone, coherent entity, this felt more like being dropped into the middle of a long-running TV show – one based on a series of books I’ve never read, but adapted on the basis viewers would know it well. I’ve seen a few Chinese films which have adopted a similar approach, taking legends familiar to local audiences and creating something all but incomprehensible elsewhere. This Argentinian movie generates similar feelings of baffled amazement. I’m going to start by copy/pasting the official synopsis:

The story of Daemonium begins in an alternate universe to ours, in which Magic and Technology Coexist with Humans and Demons. In Daemonium we see Razor rise to power! (He will be the new image of a dystopic power and seeks a full out war with Hell the demons that dwell there and anyone that stands in his way!), the doubts of Rebbecca (who will question everything she knew for a fact about her life), Lisa, a common woman with an unthinkable destiny (womanly force on their way), and the wizard and con artist Fulcanelli (facing his own destiny regardless of his intentions).

I trust that has cleared everything up. No? Well, it is at least an accurately confusing representation of how I feel. Let me try again. The heroine plays at least five different roles, including fallen angel Azazel, and three different android versions of herself, Loly, Nancy and Victoria. They’re embroiled in a battle between good and evil, alongside the morally ambivalent magician Fulcanelli (Cornás), after a portal to another world is opened, allowing a demonic entity to escape. The demon makes a deal with mercenary, Razor (Casco), for the usual wealth, power, etc, although Razor’s pregnant wife, Lisa (Presedo) is kidnapped and turned into a assassin, targeting her husband. But it’s Fulcanelli and Azazel who may be key to stopping the threat.

Even if I can’t say I comprehended much of what was happening – perhaps its origins as a five-part web series were an issue – I was certainly never bored. Clinging on to any passing scraps of coherence like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood, certainly. But bored? Not at all. For it looks very slick, and doesn’t pull any punches at all, particularly at the end, when the heroine enters full-on (and literal) “avenging angel” mode. The director is best known for a series of horror films, Plaga Zombie, and brings much the same enthusiastic eye for mayhem and splatter to this. I’d love to see what he could do with the same universe – only operating with a script which focused on telling a cogent and compelling story, rather than galloping from one cool sequence to the next, like a hyperactive child in a toy-store.

Dir: Pablo Parés
Star: Caro Angus, Walter Cornás, Dany Casco, Rocío Rodríguez Presedo

Hundra

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“Blonde barbarians have more fun.”

hundraDirector Cimber seems always to have had an interest in the action-heroine genre, having previously directed Lady Cocoa, he’d go on to do Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold , also starring Landon, and work on Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. But this was likely his best work, a rather inspired Conan knock-off, which both predates and is significantly better than Red Sonja.

The titular heroine (Landon) is left virtually the last of her all-female tribe, after everyone else is slaughtered while she’s out hunting or something. Initially intent on getting revenge, the tribal shaman, Chrysula, then insists Hundra’s more important task is to find a man appropriate to start the job of repopulating them. But our barbarian queen quickly finds out that most men are, indeed, dicks, and not in the sense she hoped either. The remainder of the film is mostly about the task of trying to locate someone worthy of being the father of her child, while also bringing a feminist consciousness to other women, who tend not to be anywhere near as liberated as Hundra.

It certainly starts impressively, with both the massacre and the resulting revenge-based chase (in which the hunters become the hunted), being well-staged and brutally effective. Landon could probably do with some more muscles, particularly in her arms; when she’s clashing blades with guys twice her size, it isn’t entirely convincing, but she largely makes up for that with a fierce personality. After that barn-storming start, the pace does slacken considerably in the middle too, as Hundra goes into “hormonal clock overtime” mode, eventually deciding that Pateray (Oliveros) has the seed worthy of her loins. However, he insists she must first learn how to be a lady, a rather odd concept for the genre – what is this, My Fair Barbarian? However, a strong score from legendary composer Ennio Morricone helps things tick over until the action quotient ramps up again in time for Hundra to pop out the necessary rug-rat and pick up her sword once more.

I believe 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. Landon apparently did almost all her own action, and has to be commended for that; credit also Hundra’s dog, who succeeds in out-acting and being more sympathetic than most of the men present. You’ll believe a canine can ride a horse… While I’d be hard-pushed to claim this is great overall, and the inconsistency of tone is occasionally very jarring, there are enough aspects and elements which work, to make this an interesting, generally entertaining watch.

Dir: Matt Cimber
Star: Laurene Landon, John Ghaffari, Marisa Casel, Ramiro Oliveros

Pale Queen Rising by A.R. Kahler

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2actionhalf

Claire is the official “court assassin” to Mab, who is the Winter Faerie Queen. Her realm lies in a world parallel to ours, but separate from it, and inhabited by a slew of creatures we humans know only from myth, who can travel back and forth to the mortal world. Mab traffics in “Dream”, which is somewhere between a food, a drug and currency for her citizens, and the product of human emotions, particularly in group settings such as concerts or other shows. However, someone is muscling in on her turf, with the intent of controlling the Dream, and she unleashes Claire to track down the culprit, who turns out to be the ‘Pale Queen’ of the title.

Claire is actually human: she was taken as a child, replaced by a changeling, and brought up by Mab in a palace of ice, not even knowing her real last name. But she’s more used to tasks that require blunt application of force, and is increasingly troubled as her investigation brings her past back out of the shadows – in particular, the apparent involvement of her biological mother with the Immortal Circus, which seems to serve as a front for the illicit trade. There’s also Roxie, a mortal singer who has signed a contract giving her the fame she seeks, in exchange for being a conduit through which Dream can be harvested – and to whose allure Claire is not immune.

Takes a little bit for the situation here to become clear. It wasn’t until a good way in that I figured out the details of what “Dream” was; since this is kinda important to the plot, it should likely have been laid out from the get-go. For an assassin, it has to be said, Claire really doesn’t do much assassin-ing in this volume and that, too, needed to be more effectively established. Anyone can proclaiming themselves an assassin. She does have some moderately bad-ass magical skills, and solid hand-to-hand combat talents, and she needs both of these, as well as help from her own allies, when going up against the Pale Queen’s minions, who have abilities of their own. More likely needed, however.

The heroine has a nicely sarcastic approach to life that is endearing, and Kahler has crafted a world with plenty of potential. However, it feels like a lot of that potential was left dangling. For instance, early on, Claire says, “Monsters can come from anywhere with a flat surface.” At least in this book, that intriguing premise is left unexplored. Most of the time, too, Claire is apparently meandering round in the human world, only popping back occasionally to the, likely more interesting, faerie realm. It may be the case that this works better if you’ve read the author’s previous series, which focuses on the Immortal Circus. As a standalone, however, this is no more than alright, and ends in the unsatisfactory “buy the second volume” way, which I’m increasingly discovering appears to be a thing with e-books.

Author: A.R. Kahler
Publisher: 47North, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues

starstar
“A not-so-animated feature”

The rating here is largely based on my (I’d say, not unreasonable) expectation going in, that this would be actual animation. It isn’t. This appears to be, what I’ve since learned is called, a “motion comic”: think of it more as an illustrated radio play, with voice actors playing the parts in front of somewhat animated panels. And when I say, “somewhat”, I mean there is typically no more than one thing moving on them e.g. a character’s mouth. I can see comics for which this approach would work; unfortunately, a heavily action-oriented story such as Red Sonja is not among them.

It’s a shame, as the story and voice acting are both quite well-done. Sonja (Lee) and another prisoner are rescued by King Dimath, from a dungeon where they had been forced to fight other captives for the amusement of their captors. Years later, Dimath sends Sonja a call for help. His kingdom has fallen prey to a plague, and a horde is about to sweep through it, intent on salting the earth to prevent the disease spreading. And, wouldn’t you know it, commanding that horde is Annisia (Strom) – who just so happens to be Sonja’s co-captive from her time in the dungeon. Her experiences have pushed her into quite a different psychological path, shall we say.

It reminds me more than a little of the Xena: Warrior Princess arc which pitted Xena against her own blonde nemesis from the past, Callisto. That’s not a bad thing, and there’s no shortage of strong female characters, such as the bow-wielding bodyguards Dimath dispatches to stand alongside Sonja. Admittedly, they are more used to taking out rabbits – which may or may not be a Holy Grail reference. Yet what they lack in combat experience, they more than make for in the effusive complimentary terms by which they address Sonja, e.g. “your radiant ladyship,” “majestic blade mistress,” “our glorious sword princess” or even “she of the excellent cleavage”!

Lee certainly gives it her all, and so do the rest of the cast. It’s just that this needs a far greater range of motion than it gets here. These should be epic battle scenes, drenched wall-to-wall in blood and flying body parts – not still panels, with maybe an arm holding a sword moving slowly across the frame. If this had been the full-on animated feature I was expecting, all the other pieces are in place for it to have surpassed, by far, the woeful Brigitte Neilsen movie. It’s a damn shame the approach taken, instead robs all these aspects of their vitality and energy. What you’re left with falls short of reading the comic, because you have someone else turning the pages.

It’s barely an adequate place-holder for the proposed live-action version. That feature has been circling development hell since it was announced in 2008, with names as diverse as Rose McGowan, Megan Fox and Amber Heard linked to it. Last I heard was Feb 2015, when a new writer came on board. At this point, I’m certainly not holding my breath…

Dir: Gail Simone
Star (voice): Misty Lee, Becca Strom, Shannon Kingston, Tyler Nicol