GLOW

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“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

The Eagle Huntress

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“Where eagles dare.”

No matter how bad-ass you are, you’ll never attain “13-year-old Mongolian girl, standing astride a mountain, holding the trained golden eagle she raised from a chick, after climbing down a cliff to get it” levels of bad-ass. That’s what we have here, folks, in this documentary about Aisholpan. She’s a Mongolian teenager who wants to become an eagle huntress, a profession traditionally reserved for the male lineage. Her father Rys learned the skills necessary (and, presumably, inherited the really large, very well-padded glove) from his father, and so on.

In the absence of a suitably-aged son, and given Aisholpan’s interest, Rys is happy to show her the ropes. Literally. As in the ones used to prevent her falling off the steep cliff-face she has to descend to pluck her eaglet from its home. For, as we learn, there’s only a brief period between the chicks being able to survive away from their mother, and them leaving the nest, during which they can be taken. We also discover, there’s apparently no word in Mongolian for “child endangerment.” There’s then the training process, as the bird grows up, for instance to get it to come when called. Though “politely asked” would be wiser than “called”. You don’t order around something like the full-sized and scary creature shown on the right.

The first dramatic moment is Aisholpan’s participation in the annual golden eagle festival, which takes place in a nearby (by Mongolian standards – it’s only a day’s ride away) town. She’s not only the youngest participant, she’s the first woman ever to take part. Some of the veterans and elders are interviewed, and are not exactly happy about it. Though their opposition doesn’t appear to go any further than mild levels of harumphing; it’s not as if there’s any active attempt to stop her participation. This could be because the film does seem to over-state Aisholpan’s uniqueness for the sake of cinematic drama. History actually provides much evidence for her female predecessors.

However, there’s still an enormous amount here to appreciate and enjoy, not least a plethora of panoramas, sweeping across the staggeringly beautiful Mongolian plains. You also get a new respect for eagles, creatures whose size is not apparent in the air, and only when you see one perched on the heroine’s arm, it’s razor-sharp beak inches from her eye. Then there’s Aisholpan herself, who clearly gives not one damn for any constraints “tradition” might want to place on her, and goes about her eagle-training business with an infectious smile. Oh, and she’s studying to be a doctor when she grows up. If she went on her rounds with an eagle on her arm, so much the better, I’d say.

Finally, we get to bask in the gloriously stunned silence of the elders, after Aisholpan has demonstrated her skills (and, admittedly, those of her avian familiar) at the tournament. They then point out that, well, anybody – even a girl – can do well enough in the comfortable setting of a field. She could never withstand the harsh conditions faced by real hunters, in the mountains. Guess where Aisholpan’s next stop is? Yep. She takes her bird and heads off into those mountains, through snowdrifts which reach up to the flank of her horse, to hunt foxes for their fur. In terms of teenage empowerment, it sure beats getting a tattoo and hanging out at the mall.

Dir: Otto Bell
Star: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rys Nurgaiv, Daisy Ridley (narrator)

The Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. series

The late seventies was something of a golden era for exploitation, but few films have sustained their notoriety as well as the Ilsa series. Even more than forty years after the release of the first film starring Dyanne Thorne, there’s still something repellent and uncomfortable about the whole concept. Which is, of course, part of its transgressive appeal. Safe to say that the four films, made between 1975 and 1977 represent perhaps the most politically incorrect franchise ever to receive a theatrical release. Join with us, why don’t you, as we explore the mad, sick and twisted world of Ilsa, beginning with what still remains today, one of the most notorious grindhouse films ever made.


Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S.
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I used to have an Ilsa, She-wolf of the SS T-shirt, but only ever dared wear it once in public – the looks of hate it provoked were simply too much to bear, though I don’t exactly kowtow to moral pressure or political correctness easily. And when I bought the DVD in the Hollywood Virgin Megastore, a complete stranger standing next to me commented to the effect that this wasn’t the sort of thing we needed to see getting re-released. Such is the power of Ilsa.

Hence, I write with trepidation: even in the sordid yet enchanting world of exploitation cinema, She-Wolf is notorious. Three decades after being made, it remains unreleased – and possibly unreleasable – in the United Kingdom, and in our house, the DVD sat on the shelf for two years, since I feared Chris would instantly leave me if we watched it. And she is no shrinking violet, but a woman who (to my ultimate delight) regards an uncut DVD of The Story of Ricky as a fine birthday present. Luckily, Chris is right beside me as I type this, and I get to produce this article as a married, rather than divorced man.

I should point out, before the inevitable accusations come in, that the mark awarded to the film is scored on a radically different scale from “normal” movies. I don’t recommend this movie unless you possess a very black sense of humour, are immune to being offended by fictional material, have carefully stowed all children and maiden aunts, and switched off all moral qualms.

Even so, the question must still be asked, is a Nazi camp a suitable setting for any piece of entertainment? No, probably not. But tell that to the producers of Hogan’s Heroes, a comedy set in a similar location. [Indeed, She-Wolf was filmed on Hogan’s sets, and the private life of star Bob Crane, was no less sordid than most exploitation films – as shown in Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus, which would make a fine double-bill with She-Wolf]. Or perhaps Schindler’s List, which in my opinion is more guilty of exploiting the Holocaust (interestingly, She-Wolf never mentions the J-word – it’s just a natural reaction these days to equate Nazi camps with Jews).

If I may digress for a moment, I find List a truly cynical work: Steven Spielberg performs his usual adept emotional manipulation, but what purpose is served? Like all docudramas, it alters the facts, and no Aryan Nation adherent will sit through a three-hour plus, black and white film for “educational” reasons. It seems more like a cynical, and successful, attempt to win Spielberg an Academy Award. Ask yourself an awkward question: would it have won seven Oscars if it had been about gypsies?

Like Schindler, the cinematic Ilsa was based on a real character. Ilsa Koch was the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” whose practices perhaps surpassed those in the movie, including the stripping and curing of human skin – particularly from tattoed inmates – for her collection of lampshades, gloves, etc. Unlike her fictional counterpart, she survived the war, being sentenced to live in prison, but sadly, didn’t live to see a twisted depiction of her life, committing suicide in 1967.

At least She-Wolf is upfront about its exploitational nature, despite an opening title which reads, in part, “We dedicate this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again.” This is such an implausible claim, you can’t even begin to take it seriously, especially when the next scene shows Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) writhing atop one of the camp’s inmates. We don’t initially ‘know’ it’s her (though I doubt anyone is fooled!), until she returns, dressed as the commandant of Medical Camp 9.

It’s not long before her true persona is revealed, as she castrates her lover, fulfilling in a twisted way her promise that he wouldn’t return to the camp. The arrival at camp of a new batch of inmates allows the depiction of a whole new range of potential tortures, even if there is a surprising amount of plot going on too:

  • Ilsa’s attempts to prove women are better than men at handling pain…
  • Her growing infatuation with American prisoner Wolfe (Gregory Knoph)…
  • The prisoners’ plans to revolt…
  • The imminent arrival of a General on a tour of inspection…
  • The equally imminent arrival of Allied forces.

Though, being honest, these are secondary to the depiction of a huge range of sadistic and/or fetishistic practices. Floggings, electric dildos, decompression, surgery, golden showers, bondage – it’s all here, as well as good old-fashioned sexuality, making this truly a film with something for everyone. This is part of what makes for such uncomfortable viewing, it mixes the repellent and the fascinating unlike any other movie ever made – the closest I can think of would be Pasolini’s Salo, but that is Art, and consequently extremely tedious. That’s something you can certainly not say about Ilsa, where every few minutes brings some new unpleasantness to contemplate.

The “fascinating” would be Dyanne Thorne, whose portrayal is spot on, and without which the film would be no more than a parade of atrocities. She was already in her 40’s when it was made, and it’s rare, even nowadays, for a female character of that age to be shown with such unfettered sexuality. Admittedly, Thorne’s German accent is awful (she can’t even pronounce “Reich” correctly), but it’s a captivating and iconic performance of charisma and amorality.

It’s difficult to criticize the rest of the participants, since an awful lot of them seem to have suspiciously short filmographies, and I suspect pseudonyms were being used e.g. writer “Jonah Royston”, lead actor “Gregory Knoph” and, of course, producer “Herman Traeger” was in reality Dave Friedman, who worked with Herschell Gordon Lewis on the likes of Blood Feast and 2000 Maniacs. The only notable name, save an uncredited Uschi Digard, is Maria Marx, playing Anna, the prisoner whom even Ilsa cannot break – ironically Marx’s parents left Germany as refugees from Hitler. She was married to Melvin Van Peebles and is Mario’s mother.

Technically, it’s several steps better than you might think; there’s nothing complex or innovative, admittedly, but simply being coherent and in-focus puts it several levels above many video nasties, most of which are lamentably inept. Joe Blasco’s make-up effects hit the mark with disturbing frequency, though perhaps the most memorable moments are those which go beyond simple gore. For example, the dinner party entertainment, consisting of a naked woman suspended by piano wire, with her only support a steadily melting block of ice. This kind of stuff is simply wrong, yet I’ve little doubt worse things went on. [But for the most stomach-churning WW2 atrocity film, see Men Behind the Sun, covering the Japanese occupation of China and their human experiments]

While Ilsa wasn’t the first “video Nazi” (Love Camp 7 in 1967 predates it), it is certainly the most infamous, and is perhaps exploitation cinema in its most elemental form, going places where ordinary films would never dare to tread. Others among the most notorious films of the 1970’s have now been accepted into society (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, now gets shown on British network TV), Ilsa still remains a pariah. If you have any interest in “polite society”, merely having the film on your shelf is an act of some courage – though any acknowledgement of its power and qualities, as here, does perhaps count as reckless. :-)

Ilsa is the antithesis of the word “heroine”, yet is undeniably a strong, independent female character (albeit one which proves that such traits are not necessarily a good thing), and on that ground alone, deserves recognition. There’s something almost rabidly feminist about her assertions of the superiority of women, and she is certainly a candidate for the most warped, despicable, relentlessly evil female character in cinema history. At the very least, the films remind us of the fragility of history: had things been only a little different, we could be living in a society where Ilsa was the heroine…

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star
: Dyanne Thorne, Gregory Knoph, Tony Mumolo, Maria Marx

[I acknowledge the invaluable contribution of The Ilsa Chronicles, by Darren Venticinque and Tristan Thompson, published by Midnight Media, without which this article would be very plain in appearance!]

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks
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haremThe success – or notoriety – of She-Wolf inevitably led to a sequel. riding roughshod over trivial issues like Ilsa having been killed at the end. Nor does anyone pay the slightest heed to thirty years having passed since the end of World War II, without her having apparently aged a day. That’s exploitation, folks! For this takes place in the modern era, with the Middle East replacing Germany, as the title suggests. Ilsa is now the right-hand woman of El Sharif (Alexander, a pseudonym for Jerry Delony), whose duties mostly involve keeping him supplied with a steady supply of more or less pliable Western woman for his sexual needs. Some discretion becomes necessary, due to the arrival of American businessman and thinly-disguised Dr. Kissinger lookalike, Dr. Kaiser (Roehm, a pseudonym for Richard Kennedy) and his “aide” Adam Scott (Thayer, a pseudonym – as in the original, you’ll be detecting a theme here – for Max Thayer), who is actually a CIA agent. Bedding Ilsa, he turns her against El Sharif, and when she is punished for her disloyalty, she switches sides entirely, supporting the nephew and assisting in a palace coup aimed at overthrowing her former employer.

If not quite in as spectacularly poor taste as the original, it certainly isn’t going to be mistaken for a Disney movie, with exploding IUDs, forced plastic surgery, burning alive, any amount of more mundane tortures and soft(ish)-core sex, plus copious amounts of gratuitous nudity from just about every female in the cast. Those include the return of Russ Meyer favourite Uschi Digard, who gets a larger role than in the first film, and also Haji from Faster Pussycat, who plays an undercover asset for Scott, whose mission is discovered by Ilsa. Having a tape-recorder that looks about the size of a briefcase was probably, in hindsight, a bad move… Outside of Ilsa, however, the two most memorable are Ilsa’s sidekicks, Satin and Velvet (Tanya Boyd and Marilyn Joy – the latter would play Cleopatra Schwarz in The Kentucky Fried Movie the following year), who appear inspired by Bambi and Thumper in Diamonds are Forever. They kick ass, not least while topless and oiled, ripping off the testicles of one delinquent soldier with their bare hands, so he can be added to Ilsa’s stable of eunuchs. That’s an incentive policy I hope my workplace doesn’t adopt.

It’s significantly slicker than She-Wolf, with considerably better production values, but that isn’t unequivocally a good thing for the grindhouse genre, since it’s the rough edges which tend to make for the most memorable entries. You get the sense here the makers were more self-consciously going for the shock and outrage, rather than them stemming organically from the setting, and their deliberate nature makes them less effective. I was also disappointed in how Ilsa suddenly switched into acting like a love-struck schoolgirl at the drop of one good bedding at the hands (or whatever) of Adam: that isn’t the villainess for which I signed up. Still, it is kinda nice to reach the end and not feel that you need a shower, with the camp elements here helping to lighten the tone, and providing a welcome reminder than none of this should be taken in the slightest bit seriously.

Dir: Don Edmonds
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michael Thayer, Victor Alexander, Wolfgang Roehm

Ilsa, the Wicked Warden
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wardenDirector Jess Franco has something of a cult following, which I never understood. Sure, there are worse directors out there, but there aren’t many duller ones. I had the misfortune to watch two of his films this week: the other was his Count Dracula, and managed to be coma-inducingly tedious, despite haviing Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski, two actors I would watch recite the telephone directory. This “bootleg Ilsa” entry is perhaps even worse. It wasn’t originally intended as part of the series – a big giveaway is that Dyanne Thorne’s character isn’t even blonde – but at some point ended up re-titled and redubbed to turn the originally-named “Greta” into “Ilsa”. To avoid any additional confusion, the latter is how I’ll refer to her.

It’s certainly not far from the other entries in tone or content. Ilsa (Thorne) runs a lunatic asylum, Las Palomas Clinic, in the South American jungle, that specializes in young women with sexual issues such as nymphomania or lesbianism (in other words, the photogenic ones!). When one escapes, making it to the house of Dr. Arcos (Franco) before being recaptured and vanishing, the good doctor raises concerns. He’s approached by her sister, Abby Phillips (Bussellier), and agrees to have  her committed to the asylum under an assumed name, so she can find out what’s going on. Turns out the place is also being used as a black site for political dissidents, with Ilsa also running a side-line of pornographic films starring the inmates. Discovering this will require Abby to get through not just Ilsa, but also Juana (Romay), the top dog at the facility, who abuses her position ever bit as much.

This is mind numbingly dull, with a capital D, despite an almost constant parade of female nudity – the clinic appears to suffer from a shocking lack of underwear. While the other entries in the series are fairly equal-opportunity in their viciousness, with both sexes falling foul of Ilsa’s sadism, this frequently descends into fully-fledged misogyny – even if the perpetrators are often women too. If you make it all the way through, you’ll likely need a shower, though it’s more probably your interest will have made an exit before that becomes necessary. It doesn’t even have the grace to focus on Ilsa, with Abby being the central character for much of it. About the only section likely to stick in your mind is the very end – again, if you haven’t found anything better to do – where Franco suddenly decides he’s making the world’s first cannibal women-in-prison film.

Not helped by a dub that appears to be English as a second language, containing made-up words such as “provocate,” this solidifies Franco’s position as among the least talented directors in cinema history. Despite having already helmed over 80 movies by this point in his career, there’s no indication he had learned anything from the experience, delivering a feature-film which all but entirely squanders its main asset, Thorne’s charisma. Nice though it would be to claim the political angle was subtle satire regarding life in post-Franco Spain, that would seem a real stretch. If I never have to sit through two of his movies in the same week again, it will be too soon.

Dir: Jess Franco
Star: Tania Busselier, Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay, Jess Franco
a.k.a. Greta: Haus Ohne Männer; Greta, the Mad Butcher; Ilsa: Absolute Power; Wanda, the Wicked Warden

Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia
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tigressIf the second film showcased Ilsa’s apparently miraculous immortality, the fourth and final is even more implausible, taking place both in 1953 Soviet Russia, and 1977 Montreal, with Thorne looking more or less identical in both, save for a change in hairstyle. It begins in a gulag, where Ilsa has found a new use for her sadistic talents overseeing a Siberian prison, the Soviets presumably being willing to overlook that whole pesky “Nazi war criminal” thing. There, she has clearly not mellowed, spearing an escaped prisoner, and ensuring he’s dead by having his head smashed with an enormous mallet. Oh, and the name “Tigress” isn’t just a sobriquet, given she keeps one of them in a pit. The new arrivals include political dissident Andrei Chikurin, (Morin), whom she vows to break, and the son of a Politburo member, imprisoned for drunken hooliganism. When the regime in Moscow changes after Stalin’s death, Ilsa swiftly packs up shop: as with her Nazi camp, the aim is to dispose of all the prisoners and leave no witnesses, but Chikurin survives.

24 years later, he’s part of a hockey team playing games in Canada, and goes to a whorehouse with some team-mates, completely unaware that it’s run by Ilsa, who now has a new line in mind-control technology, which she uses both on her hookers and rival gangsters, to cement her position. She’s startled to see him and, concerned he’s out for revenge, kidnaps Chikurin. However, that backfires, as it brings her back to the attention of the Soviets – not least the Politburo members who still holds a grudge against her for the death of her son, and who sets the local office of the KGB on her tail. Which makes this an extremely rare case of a North American movie from the time where the KGB are not the bad guys. It’s also worth noting that even the mind-control aspects are not that far-fetched, since the CIA’s infamous Project MKUltra had a Montreal outpost from 1957 to 1964 at McGill University, information revealed a couple of years prior to Tigress‘s 1977 release.

The first half does ramp up the violence at the cost of the sex, mostly because Ilsa is close to being the only woman in the gulag. But the second half flips that around, as we get into the prostitution ring, and to be honest, given the amount of time devoted to them, the film would be more accurately titled Ilsa, Madam of Montreal. And that’s a bit of a shame, because it’s probably the stuff in the frozen wastes of Siberia that are more interesting than a prosaic and forgettable crime story, which is what the second half collapses into. Even Ilsa seems to be a kinder, gentler model; I can only blame Canada for this disappointing softness. There is some ironic appropriateness to the ending, which sees Ilsa stuck in the middle of a frozen lake, burning her money to try and stay warm. Though compared to the fate which befell many of those who cross their path, this is certainly weak sauce as well. It’s a shame they did not apparently proceed with an entire film based in Siberia, as what results instead is little more than half a true Ilsa film.

Dir: Jean LaFleur
Star: Dyanne Thorne, Michel Morin, Tony Angelo, Terry Coady

Wonder Woman

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“Slightly short of a wonder.”

I’m not an enormous fan of either the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes. Superhero films tend to bore me: the concept in general seems like lazy writing, and nor can I handle the subsequent contortions needed to generate a credible threat e.g. Kryptonite. The Dark Knight is the only film from either stable that I actually possess, mostly due to Heath Ledger’s incredible performance. The others I’ve seen, from Iron Man through to Suicide Squad, have been no better than popcorn pleasantries, without much to offer in the way of emotional heart. That’s the biggest improvement Wonder Woman offers: a heroine who, as personified by Gal Gadot, cares – indeed, perhaps too much. And through her passion, she makes the audience care.

There’s one scene which particularly demonstrates this. Diana (no-one ever calls her by the WW label here) has just arrived at the front in 1918 Belgium, and is experiencing the hell of modern war for the first time. She is horrified by the suffering of the civilians and refuses to accept the explanations of her partner, US Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) about why nothing can be done. She won’t accept it, and goes over the top on her own, leading by selfless example, to rescue people she’s never even seen. It’s true heroism, and the intensity of Gadot’s performance – with a nod to Pine for the set-up – gives it a wallop that in terms of sheer emotion, surpasses almost anything else delivered by Marvel or DC to date.

To reach that point, however, takes quite a lengthy set-up. We begin with the adorable young Diana, watching the other Amazons training on Themyscira, imitating their kicks and punches in a way a million 8-year-olds were likely doing on the way home from the cinema this weekend. Despite her mother’s wishes, Diana is trained and becomes the Amazons’ top warrior, just in time for Steve to show up, hotly pursued by the Germans. This is because he has stolen documentation of a rogue chemical warfare program, run by Doctor Isabel Maru and General Ludendorff (Huston). After helping fend off the Germans, at considerable cost, Diana agrees to go into the world at large, because she believes the Greek god of war, Ares, is behind the program. She’s not ready for the world. And nor is the world ready for Diana…

The positives here greatly outnumber the negatives, starting with the cast, who are almost universally spot-on. Gadot may not be muscular enough for some as an Amazon goddess, but I can honestly say, that was an issue which never crossed my mind during the (perhaps a little long) 141-min running time. Any possible shortcomings physically, are perfectly well-covered by the intensity and dedication of her performance. Pine, too, is excellent: he grounds the film, acting as the audience’s voice and offering up much the same comments as we would. There is romantic tension between Steve and Diana, yet it’s lightly enough handled not to interfere. The supporting cast…well, they provide solid support, led admirably by Etta Davis as Steve’s secretary. My main qualm might be Huston, who isn’t the supervillain every good superhero(ine) needs: he’s no Heath Ledger, put it that way. Dr. Maru might have made for a better antagonist, though the script has other intentions for her.

Technically, it’s good, rather than great. Jenkins does occasionally succumb to the fast-cut style of editing, and some of the green-screen work is frankly ropey. Witness the 8-year-old Diana falling off a cliff, for instance, which really does not look like comes from a $150 million film. The script is similar: the main twist it offers is one which I guessed almost immediately (if you’ve been watching a current TV show, you likely will too), though it didn’t damage my enjoyment too much. It is occasionally a little… well, smug? Is that the right word? I’m not sure, but that’s how exchanges about the war like this come off:
   Trevor: Maybe we’re all to blame.
   Diana: I’m not!
#WellActually… I’d say that being part of a group which hides in a literal bubble for two thousand years does not absolve one of all responsibility for the state of the world. To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good women to do nothing.” Anyway, this is me, cringing at the earnest obviousness of the above. Or obvious earnestness. That it stood out, however, indicates it was more a misstep than a consistent direction.

Good thing too. For I hate the way almost every major motion picture with an action heroine nowadays, seems to turn into World War One itself. From Fury Road through Ghostbusters to Rogue One, they become a battleground for gender trench warfare, with the camps lobbing verbal bombs at each other, and taking no prisoners. Look: if the goddamn movie is robust, it doesn’t matter whether you have a hero or a heroine, unless you make it matter. [That’s where George Miller was smart and Paul Feig wasn’t, perhaps reflecting the former’s superior confidence in his material – and he was justified there] Here, this is exactly what you would expect: the title is the movie. No kudos are deserved for it, nor any criticism. If you are somehow upset by the concept, stay away, and don’t whine about it. Nor is it the deeply life-changing experience some allege – or, at least, if your life is dramatically changed (by this or any other Hollywood product), I’d guess you have other issues. Or possibly, are aged eight.

I do wonder what the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston would have thought, seeing his bondage-heavy heroine turned into a glossy major movie. Especially since history is littered with not-very-good comic adaptations featuring female leads: Brenda Starr; Sheena; Supergirl; Tank Girl; Catwoman; Elektra; Painkiller Jane. To tell the truth, I think I was personally more relieved than anything, that this did not exhibit a similar degree of suckage. It was a very, very high profile effort, and failure, commercially and/or critically, would have had a severely dampening impact on any similar future productions. This doesn’t appear to have happened, and its success will hopefully open the door for more top of the line action heroines – some of which could end up being even better. Meanwhile, we’re bracing ourselves for the tidal-wave of little Diana Princes which will swamp our doorstep on Halloween.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Star: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis

Lady Bloodfight

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“Now available for Playstation and Xbox”

This rattled around in pre-production for a while, originally being called Lady Bloodsport, and with the names linked to it being significantly higher in profile: Maggie Q, Shu Qi and Zhiyi Zhang. The end result here is obviously smaller and cheaper – the fights at its core all take place in the bastion of martial arts, a warehouse – and you can’t help but think, “What if…?” However, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable, despite – or, perhaps because of – feeling like a throwback to straightforward movies such as the original Bloodsport, which helped launch the career of Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1988.

The basic approach seems entirely deliberate, and the simplicity works to the film’s benefit. You don’t watch a film with this title for intricate plot or subtle character study; you watch it to see asses being kicked, and there’s enough of that, you’d be hard-pushed to feel cheated. The excuse is the well-worn trope of a martial-arts tournament for women, the kumite, being held in Hong Kong. The last time it happened, it ended in a tie between deadly rivals, Shu (Hofmann) and Wai (K. Wu). They’re now both looking for someone who can fight on their behalf. Shu selects Jane Jones (Johnston), in Hong Kong seeking a father who vanished under murky circumstances years earlier. Wai chooses and trains Ling (J. Wu), a cocky, streetwise fighter. But there are 14 other entrants, hailing from all over the world, including Russia, Australia and Brazil, who must be defeated before the inevitable Jones vs. Ling showdown.

Yes, it’s utterly contrived, not least in not one, but two, master-student threads. If you can’t think of better ways to achieve the same end, you need to watch more movies. Fortunately, it’s salvaged by a quarter of decent performances from the lead women, who take the clichés they’re given by the script, and round them out into at least an approximation of real characters, good enough for the movie’s purposes. Bonus points due, for not inflicting any sappy romance (although Jones’s interactions with the spirit of her father are occasionally on perilously thin ice instead) and also largely avoiding potentially sleazy cheesecake, save for one locker-room pan.

As the tag-line above suggests, this feels very much like an adaptation of a non-existent video-game. As such, it would have helped if they’d mixed up the environments for the fights a bit, in the name of variety. This is a minor quibble, however, and what you get are some well-crafted slabs of action, showcasing various styles and approaches. Outside of Jones and Ling, the character which stuck in our mind most was likely Mayling Ng’s monstrous Svietta, freed from a Russian prison for the kumite. All tattoos and snarls, she might have made a better “final boss” for the heroine than Ling, who is perhaps a little too sympathetic. Despite any flaws, it’s a brisk tale, energetically told, and with plenty to commend its no-nonsense approach.

Dir: Chris Nahon
Star: Amy Johnston, Muriel Hofmann, Jenny Wu, Kathy Wu

Catfight

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“All teeth and claws.”

My wife is a big fan of Sandra Oh, for her long-time work on soapy medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy. This is about as far from that as imaginable. It’s a gloriously mean-spirited “comedy” [and I used the quotes out of reverence, not in a bad way], which combines social satire with gleeful hyper-violence, at a level where you would not expect to find serious actresses. Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) knew each other in college, and have since grown apart. Veronica is now wife to a defense contractor; Ashley a largely unsuccessful artist. They meet at a birthday party, and instantly the hate begins, each representing everything the other finds reprehensible. The night ends in a stairwell brawl, which leaves Veronica in a coma for two years. She awakens, to discover she has lost everything, and Ashley is now on top, enjoying commercial and critical success.

But things are only just getting started.

This is cinematic schadenfreude: watching two thoroughly unpleasant and entitled people lose it all, and take it out on each other. The three-act structure here has each act culminate in a ferocious bout of fisticuffs, whose only point of comparison would be the Roddy Piper/Keith David fight from They Live. It is, equally as much, entirely over-the-top and deliberately so, not least for being backed by classical music e.g. The Stars and Stripes Forever or even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Particular credit goes to the sound design crew, who really go to town, with the blows having so much impact, it feels as if the punches are being launched from a missile silo in Wyoming. You’ll certainly come away with a new appreciation for the art of foley.

It’s nicely even-handed in its cynical view: most films would be inclined to come down on the side of one or other protagonist, but here, any bias is more likely to reflect the viewer’s point of view. Personally, I though Oh hit it out of the park with her performance: she has a great face, capable of conveying a wealth of emotion with a look. Though no, darling: I still won’t watch Grey’s. [Bonus points to Chris, as she did notice the hospital in which Veronica wakes up is called Mercy General, a name likely chosen as a nod to the rival hospital in the show, Mercy West.] But it is undeniably a two-hander, with credit due to both: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in that, I was occasionally reminded of a more brutal version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Credit is particularly due for the ending, where I felt certain the movie was going to cop out, delivering a sappy “kiss and make up” conclusion. There would probably be hugs, it would be utterly at odds with the acid venom of the previous 90 minutes, and I’d walk away disappointed. I’m delighted to say I was entirely wrong, and the ending fits the film perfectly. This is an ugly, guilty pleasure: yet, a pleasure it undeniably is.

Dir: Onur Tukel
Star: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Ariel Kavoussi

Ghost in the Shell: Arise

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“Brains and brawn.”

Much more a reboot, complete with a redesigned lead, than any kind of sequel, this four-part series of hour-long episodes received a theatrical release in Japan, before being released on DVD. In a typically confusing GitS universe approach, it was then broadcast on TV in 10 episodes, with extra material added. I mention this only because it’s the four-part version which will be reviewed here. It starts before Major Kusanagi (Maxwell) joins up with her boss, Aramaki (Swasey): initially, she’s part of the 501st, a counter-cyberterrorism group which owns her cyborg body. However, Aramaki offers her the opportunity to go freelance under him, doing similar work, and assemble a team who will largely be free from bureaucratic oversight.

Over the course of the four episodes, she recruits others whose names will be familiar. For example, ex-Ranger Batou (Sabat), comes aboard after initially being part of a team working against Kusanagi, who are trying to prove government complicity in war crimes. This is an interesting change, compared to the previous versions, which always seemed to join Section 9 “in progress,” and provides some intriguing insight into what makes – literally, to some extent – the Major the way she is. For, in this incarnation, we discover that she has been in her prosthetic body since birth, and has never known any other way of life.

The other main focus is the dangers of a society which is totally reliant on technology, because of the horrible opportunities for exploitation it presents to terrorists. Even the heroine is not immune to being hacked, and one of the themes is the implications of a world in which you can’t trust your own memories, when these could be false implants. This makes police work incredibly hard, because as is pointed out, even if someone admits to committing a crime, they could actually be entirely innocent. This illustrates the nicely cynical streak here, concentrating heavily on the potential downsides of scientific advancement.

I found the main strength to be the much better balance struck between the intellectual and action elements. If you’ve read the previous reviews, you’ll know I’ve rolled my eyes at the uber-dense lumps of philosophy, shoehorned in for no reason more necessary than, apparently, to prove how well-read the script-writer was at college. Here, those are refreshingly absent, although you still need to be paying damn good attention to the plot: I made the mistake of drifting away in episode 2 for a bit, and finally had to admit defeat, cranking things back to re-watch what I’d missed.

The battle sequences are awesome. Whether it’s the Major going up against another enhanced human, or taking on a massive battle-tank which has been hijacked by a pair of “ghosts,” these are slickly animated and edited with precision, in a way from which many live-action films could learn. They’re also incredibly violent, both on a personal level and in terms of the material carnage caused by them. But such is the joy of cyborgs, they can take a lickin’ and keep right on tickin’… The result is a rare combination of action and intelligence, that offers something for both the lizard portions of the brain, and the more highly-developed parts.

Dir: Kazuchika Kise
Star (voice): Elizabeth Maxwell, John Swasey, John Swasey, Jason Douglas

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.

Neerja

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“Sticks to the plane truth.”

Time to set up GirlsWithoutGuns.org, perhaps. For this film brings home that among the most courageous of heroines are the unarmed ones – especially when facing people who are not. Such is the case with Neerja Bhanot, the 22-year-old head purser on Pan Am Flight 73 from Mumbai to New York in 1986. Just before takeoff after a stop in Karachi, the plane was taken over by hijackers from the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organization, who intended to divert it to Cyprus. Bhanot alerted the pilots, allowing them to escape and thwarting that plan. She then discarded the passports of American passengers, stopping the terrorists from targeting them. When they believed Pakistani forces were about to storm the plane, she opened the emergency exits, help shepherd passengers out, and sheltered children from the terrorists’ bullets.

Yep, there are good reasons she became the first female recipient of India’s highest decoration for bravery in peacetime, the Ashok Chakra Award, and the youngest ever. Wisely, the film opts for a largely straightforward retelling of the events of those 24 hours, beginning with Neerja’s exuberant attendance at a birthday party the previous evening, through her trip to the airport and the mundane processes of the early, peaceful leg of the flight, before all hell comes storming up the stairs into her aircraft. Against a solid background, the only element which rings significantly false is the note given to her by a friend at the airport: its clichéd contents perhaps explain the disclaimer before the movie, about “Any resemblance to persons living or dead…”

Otherwise, however, it seems to stick to the truth, as far as my post-film Googling has been able to tell. Yes, Neerja was a part-time model as well as an air hostess. She also had already been through an arranged marriage which failed, to an apparently abusive husband (though here again: “Any resemblance…”). But it’s her amazingly calm, yet smart approach in the face of the four hijackers that is most incredible, with death never more than a hair-trigger’s breadth away. This hellish and escalating claustrophobia of the incident is the film’s strongest suit. Madhvani plays it expertly to a crescendo, as the hijackers become increasingly irritated by what they perceive (not incorrectly) as stalling tactics by the authorities in response to demands for new pilots.

It’s likely one of those cases where less knowledge may be useful in appreciating it. For I’m sure most of the original Indian audience was already well aware of the story here; in contrast, as someone who hadn’t heard about it before, I found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion, with no clue of how it would end. As we enter the New Year of 2017, it certainly qualifies as one of the strongest entries of 2016, even if – or perhaps because? – the movie goes in a different direction from the more-traditional kind of action heroines, which we usually cover on this site.

Dir: Ram Madhvani
Star: Sonam Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Yogendra Tiku, Abrar Zahoor

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.