Iron Swallow

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“A bit hard to swallow.”

ironswallowGenerally, if someone is roaming the country, carrying out brutal attacks on apparently innocent citizens, blinding and disfiguring them, they’d be the villain of the piece, right? Not so here. For despite such distinctly non-heroic actions, Iron Swallow (Lee) is the heroine, disabling the men she holds responsible for killing her father years earlier. Needless to say, they’re not exactly impressed with the situation. To make matters worse, someone is flat-out killing her targets, intent on covering up something or other, and is trying to make it look like Swallow is responsible, by leaving her trademark darts behind at the scene. There are also two friends (Tao and Chung) rattling around, the son and pupil respectively of the region’s leading martial arts master Chu Hsiao Tien (Yuen), who get involved in the murky situation because Chu is one of Swallow’s targets and has hired a particularly loathsome assassin to bury the case.

Murky is, to be honest, putting it mildly, and the plot here appears to have been constructed from finest quality raw ore, taken from the Kung Fu Cliché mine. And I stress the word “raw”, since there doesn’t appear to have been much processing, in the way of logical thought, given to those ideas between their conception and the screen. It’s the kind of kung-fu film where you can’t be sure whether they made the story up as they went along – however, if they had, it would explain a lot of the tedious incoherence. I read another review which called this a martial arts version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, and that’s a decent enough summary. At one point, Chris meandered in and wondered whether this was the source film for Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, based mostly on Swallow’s hair-style. Though she says that for about 40% of period kung-fu films, so it probably doesn’t mean much.

It’s certainly one of those cases where you might as well bring a book, and forget about trying to follow the indigestible lumps of plot between the action scenes. Fortunately, those are decent enough to sustain interest, and relatively copious, particularly in a final third which more or less abandons the plot, replacing it with multiple varieties of fisticuffs. Swallow’s skills are obvious, and given multiple opportunities to shine. It’s a shame that Lee was never allowed to showcase her own identity, in the way Angela Mao received, instead being the victim of a highly dubious marketing campaign which alleged she was Bruce Lee’s sister. Whatever the short-term benefit that brought, it did her career no good in the longer term, and she was all but gone from the screen by the end of the seventies. I have to wonder if whoever came up with that genius idea, was also responsible for the script here…

Dir: Judy Lee, Don Wong Tao, Ting Wa Chung, Yee Yuen
Star: Chang Pei-Cheng
a.k.a. Shaolin Iron Eagle

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This works rather better as historical fiction than an action novel, and is set in the late 15th century, when the province of Brittany was fighting to remain independent from France. Such high-level political machinations are far above the heads of most inhabitants, who are busy with everyday survival. At the beginning of the book, this includes the heroine, 17-year-old Ismae, who is more concerned about her upcoming, unwanted marriage – more of a sale by her father, to be honest – to a brutal husband. Rescue comes in an unexpected form, as she is whisked away to the Convent of St. Mortain, devoted to one of the pagan gods, absorbed into the Catholic faith as a saint. Mortain’s field is death, and Ismae, who has a natural immunity to poison, is trained in his dark arts. She becomes a tool used by the Mother Superior – albeit for political ends as much as religious ones.

After a couple of training missions, the main thread of the book is her presence at the court of the young Duchess of Brittany, where she is sent as the “cousin” to her adviser, Duval. Quotes used advisedly, since the general assumption is that she’s Duval’s mistress. Know I mentioned “high-level political machinations” in the previous paragraph? Cue these, in spades, as the future of Brittany hinges largely on to whom the Duchess is married. [It was only right at the end that I realized the Duchess had barely turned thirteen, rendering some of the previous events significantly more creepy] There are any number of factions, each with their own agenda, and willing to go to any lengths to make sure they’re achieved; figuring out and negotiating the maze of loyalties and deception is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I read this not long after The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, which depicts events in a similarly chaotic period, just across the English Channel and around the same time. That didn’t have enough action to qualify here, but did get me in the appropriate Middle Ages mindset. It did share a supernatural element, with its heroine being able to affect the weather, for example. Here, Ismae’s main talent is her ability to see the mark of Mortain on those the saint has targeted for death. But this is problematic when it conflicts with the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior, and the main thrust of the heroine’s development is her transition away from an indoctrinated cult-head, as she realizes she might be being manipulated and used, almost as much as in her peasant days.

Part of this is – and you can insert a heavy sigh, complete with eye-rolling here – her blossoming feelings for Duval. It’s clear, virtually from the first time he appears, that he is the Designated Love Interest, and it’s only a matter of time before our hard-nosed assassin will inevitably be making googly eyes at him. It’s certainly the case that, once she and he arrive at the castle, the action largely grinds to a halt, being replaced by much skulking around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. There’s much more suspicion than assassination, outside of one incident at the banquet, where she saves the Duchess from violent death at the hands of a mime – okay, it’s more one of a strolling troupe of players, but I find the idea of a killer mime just too amusing to discard. [Also: while Ismae does wield a crossbow, it’s considerably smaller than the one pictured on the cover!]

I did like the meshing of old and new religious beliefs, and must confess, this certainly didn’t feel like a 550-page tome [one advantage of e-books is their lack of weight!], since I ripped through it in not much more than a week, which is lightning fast by my standards. But the book did suffer from incomplete subplots, such as the psycho fellow novitiate, who is also present in the Duchess’s castle, only to vanish entirely from the story without explanation. Perhaps this is something which will be explained in a future installment. Having paid 99 cents for this on special offer, I guess I can’t complain; but I likely wouldn’t be inclined to pay the $9.99 currently being demanded for the second part of the trilogy.

Author: Robin LaFevers 
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, available through Amazon, both as a printed book and an e-book.

Here’s the trailer. Yep, TIL that books nowadays have trailers…

The Young Boss

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“Singing samurai swings sword.”

youngboss18 years ago, the maid to a Japanese lord had twins by him. This was, apparently, a disgrace to the family – not the affair, so much as it being twins. So it was pretended she had only given birth to one daughter, Chiyo, who was brought up as the heiress. The mother and other daughter, Yuki, were sent away and after the former died, the daughter was brought up as a sword-wielding boy, Kichisaburo, by her mother’s brother, Edoya Kichibei. However, she still has a certificate proving her birth-right, and various factions are now stirring to establish her as the “rightful” heir to the title. Or, if she’s unwilling to go along with this, the plotters will simply steal the certificate from Edoya, and use an impostor to make their claim.

Misora has a double role here, playing both princesses. Though this dates from 1958, and any interaction uses stand-ins rather than more sophisticated techniques. Not that it matters much. She was a cultural icon, best known as a singer, selling over 80 million records during and after her lifetime. This explains the several occasions on which she bursts into song here. I was quite surprised, since I do not typically expect warbling in my samurai flicks. But she was also an actress, with over 150 films to her credit, and her performance is fine here. As usual, the “woman pretending to be a man” plotline is unconvincing, though at least the haircut and costumes help sell things in this case.

It’s certainly tame by subsequent Japanese swordplay movies, no surprise given the kinder, gentler era from which this comes. In contrast to their arterial spray, no-one here dies with more than a smudge of blood on their robes. I’d rather have seen the heroine remain as Kichisaburo throughout, rather than reverting to a “princessy” look after her sister’s betrothed shows up to bring Yuki back to her ancestral home. It’s certainly a more interesting character, complete with a minion whose purpose appears to be to rabble-rouse on her behalf, like a personal ring-announce. Witness lines such as, “If you don’t know him, you must be country bumpkins! Listen up. He helps the weak, and crushes the strong. Known as a man’s man, he’s the second generation of Edoya Kichibei.” Meanwhile, in the blue corner…

The other subsidiary characters aren’t very interesting, unfortunately, and get more screen-time than they warrant. The romantic angle – Yuki falls for her sister’s betrothed – doesn’t work, and the political shenanigans of a lot of people with similar top-knots, bog proceedings down more than they enlighten or entertain. It does better when in motion, Misora proving effective with the sword. They wisely give her a style that relies much more on speed than strength, dispatching her victims in two or three swift strokes. It also ends satisfactorily, with a surprisingly poignant ending that sees the heroine step aside and return to her former life so Chiyo can be happy. And just time for one last song, naturally!

Dir: Kiyoshi Sakei
Star: Hibari Misora, Hashizo Okawa, Denjiro Okochi, Shunji Sakai

Daughter of the Eagle, by Don Coldsmith

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Fate of Lee Khan

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“Out of the frying-pan, inn to the fire…”

leekhanProbably best to start with a quick history lesson. In the fourteenth century, part of China was under Mongol rule, but there was a growing movement to oust the occupiers. Leading the battle against the rebels is the titular general, and it appears he has a mole inside their headquarters, who has arranged to pass Khan a crucial map that could derail the rebellion entirely. Learning in advance that Khan will be staying at the Spring Inn, a venue owned by one of their own, Wendy (Li), the freedom fighters set in motion a daring plan to steal back the map, and assassinate Khan before he can take advantage of the information. However, it turns out – as usual! – that there are others at the inn who have agendas of their own, operating undercover on both sides. So when Khan and his sister finally show up, they may be  well-aware of what lies in wait for them…

A lot to enjoy here, not least Wendy’s newly-recruited four-pack of waitresses, who all have shady pasts of their own, including a bandit, a pickpocket, a street performer and a con artist, and who are no less adept than Wendy with their fists and feet. The pickpocket, who swipes a pearl off the front of a customer’s hat as he plays dice, is played by Angela Mao in a small but significant role, as it’s her attempt to steal the map out of Khan’s locked case that triggers the climactic outburst of violence. There’s also Khan’s sister, Wan’er (right), played by another King Hu regular, Xu Feng, though this is Hu’s only work to be so heavily femme centered. The first half reminds me of Dragon Inn, made by Hu six years previously (and remade in the nineties), with its tale of shenanigans at a remote inn, on which a motley crew of heroes and villains descend. While generally entertaining, it’s somewhat hard to keep track of who’s doing what and for whose side.

When Khan shows up, the entire dynamic changes, with this movie developing a much clearer focus. Wendy and her allies try to regain control of the key map, while unsure how much Khan and Wan’er know about their plans, and who is on their side. Eventually, one of the rebels is caught in an untenable position and is summarily executed – though Wan’er “charitably” donates a hundred taels of silver “in order to bury her properly.” Such an obvious act of provocation will not go unpunished, and it’s time for all martial arts hell to break lose (or, at least, as close as it could given the era – this was just before Bruce Lee blew the doors off the genre). All of the women here have a strict zero-tolerance policy for nonsense, and are entirely capable of handling themselves. To have one such character would be impressive, but the full half-dozen we have here, indeed pushes this into the stratosphere for its time.

Dir: King Hu
Star: Li Lihua, Han Ying Chieh, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao

The 14 Amazons

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“Never mind the quality, count the heroines!”

14amazonsYes, you certainly can’t argue about the quantity here, with four generations of a family being represented, from “Grand Dame” matriarch (Lu), through widow Mu Kuei-ying (Po) all the way down to her great-granddaughter. They are forced into action after the Mu’s husband is killed on the border of the Chinese empire, trying to repel an attack by Mongolian hordes. The government wants to sue for peace, but Mu and the rest of her family have vengeance on their mind, and march off to the front, in direct disobedience of official orders. The journey is fraught with danger, as they are ambushed going through a narrow pass and their supplies lost, forcing them to eat tree bark, but Mu and her forces press on, raiding their enemies’ camp to bring back food, as they battle their way towards the inevitable final showdown with the the leader of the Mongols, Wang Wen (Tien).

It’s more than a little confusing, not least because the “male” heir Yang Wen Kuang is played by Lily Ho, and they don’t make even the slightest effort to make her look other than female. That took me a while to work out. It’s also true that, with such a high number of characters, the great majority are severely under-developed, with less than a handful getting enough screen time that you give a damn when they are killed. Must confess, if they had worn jerseys with numbers on the back, it would have helped to differentiate them, because they all look kinda the same, especially when dressed in their military garb. The film’s plot also has moments of utter implausibility, with the “human bridge” sequence among the most “I’m so sure…” I’ve seen in some time. And last but not least, the Mongols’ uniforms looks unfortunately festive – red hats with white fur trim – giving the impression China is being invaded by a horde of Santa’s little helpers.

Yet despite the significant flaws, this is an entertaining epic, with a good sense of spectacle, and it’s nice to see a film from this era where the characters’ sex is virtually a non-factor (once they’ve escaped official jurisdiction, at least).  For the most part, everyone behaves with surprising smarts – even the Mongols aren’t portrayed as dumb barbarians, though their savagery is certainly not underplayed. Cheng delivers the battle sequences impressively enough, and you can see why this was one of the top box-office hits in Hong Kong for the year it was made, 1972. The same source material was mined again almost 40 years later, as Legendary Amazons  (from our review of which, I confess, I recycled the tagline above!), and I would just have to give the edge to the original, because of its intelligent approach to the story. Whatever the remake gains in whizzy CGI and arguably superior cast, the plot makes a good deal more sense here, and I’ll take that any day.

Dir: Cheng Gang + Charles Tung
Star: Ivy Ling Po, Lisa Lu, Lily Ho, Tien Feng

Memories of the Sword

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“Looks lovely, yet literally loses the plot.”

memoriesoftheswordThe first 30 minutes of this are truly splendid: it’s got wonderful visuals, along the lines of Hero or House of Flying Daggers. But then, it’s as if the makers completely forgot about the story-line. The remainder of the two hours consists of semi-random scenes, half in flashback, featuring characters who apparently change names at random. While it still looks awesome, unless you have a detailed synopsis printed out in advance, you’re going to be reduced to going “Ooh!” and “Eh?” in roughly equal proportions.

As best as I can tell, the story is this. Hong-ee (Kim), also known as Seoi-hee, is a young martial arts prodigy, trained since birth by her blind foster mother, Seol-rang (Jeon), a.k.a Wallso. After Hong-ee’s talents become public knowledge, Wallso reveals the motive for the training. A long time ago, as Seol-rang, she was one of three rebel group leaders. The group were betrayed to the authorities by another leader, Deok-gi (Lee BH), who was rewarded with a position as the ruler’s right-hand man, and is now known as Yoo-Baek. He once loved Seol-rang, and realizes that Hong-ee is the daughter of the third leader, Poong-Cheon. [Fortunately, he was killed by Deok-gi, so does not complicate the plot further, under that or any other name] She has been brought up to act as an instrument of revenge, driven by the knowledge that Yoo-Baek killed her parents.

There is, it appears, a bit more than that going on, particularly in the middle hour where… other stuff happens. For example, there’s the inevitable romance between Seoi-hee and another young fighter, Yoo-Baek’s champion, Yull (Lee JH). This seems to have been added purely for cynically commercial purposes, though since it largely tanked at the Korean box-office… The action scenes are generally well-staged, though some of the CGI looks more than a little unconvincing. Some moments reminded me of Shaolin Soccer, and there has been close to 15 years of technological advances since then. It’s on more solid footing when using wire-fu, and both female leads are convincing enough in their skills.

The high level of confusion likely generated, however, means this isn’t going to be much more than empty emotional experience. You’re left so busy trying to figure out who’s doing what to whom, and why, you don’t have time to care about the participants. That’s why it falls so significantly short of the films it’s clearly trying to imitate, particularly Crouching Tiger. Instead, what you have here is purely cinema as spectacle. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach, of course. It’s just that when so much effort has been put into the technical aspects, you’re inevitably left wishing for more. If only the film’s heart and soul had been as diligently worked on as its cinematography.

Dir: Park Heung-sik
Star: Kim Go-eun. Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Byung-hun, Lee Jun-ho

Lady Ninja Kaede 2

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“Secret technique, reverse dildo return!”

ladyninja2I am uncertain whether this is related to the other Lady Ninja series, or if it’s an entirely separate series. I’m leaning towards it being independent, as there appear to be magical overtones here, that weren’t present elsewhere. But just to confuse matters further,while this is on Netflix at the time of writing, there’s no sign of part one. Perhaps, if I’d seen that, this would suddenly become entertaining? Nah. Pretty sure it wouldn’t make a difference. This is slightly elevated over its predecessor by not being a po-faced ninja story with soft-porn sex scenes. It is, in fact, a barking mad ninja story with soft-porn sex scenes. What? You want specifics?

The heroine, Kaede (Akatsuki), is basically a member of the sex police, punishing those who are too lustful. There’s a religious sex cult who have combined the penises of three men into one supercharged dildo, leaving them with an apparent gaping void at the crotch. After fulfilling her first task, or retrieving the hyper-dildo, it’s up to Kaede to fix things, by finding the three donors and having sex with them, which restores their genitals. She is accompanied on her quest by a gay samurai.

Not included in this film. Any significant ninja-ing by Kaede; what action there is, is more carried out by the samurai. And, contrary to the sleeve, nor is she tied up at any point, so any bondage fans will be particularly disappointed. There is, of course, plenty of aardvarking, as Joe-Bob Briggs used to put it, and actually, I can’t say I minded the performances too much. The division of the population into those for whom sex is positive and those for whom it’s negative, reminded me (bizarrely!) of a Japanese medieval take on Cafe Flesh, Kaeda supposedly being on the anti-sex side, but in reality being the most active of anyone.

There are moments of twisted creativity that made this not unwatchable, and there’s a mad aesthetic here that could be appealing if you’re in an undiscerning mood. But if you’re looking for any kind of action beside the horizontal variety, you are going to be extremely disappointed. Finally, I did have to snort derisively at subtitles during the magic ceremony which referred to “Casper Howser”, who is presumably Doogie’s occult-inclined brother. I imagine that should instead have been “Kaspar Hauser”, a 19th-century German figure with mystical significance, about whom Werner Herzog once made a movie. Bit of a toss-up whether distributors Tokyo Shock did not know, or just did not care.

Dir: Takayuki Kagawa
Star: Luna Akatsuki, Kazu Itsuki, Yuka Sakagami

The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine E.Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

sleepAt the age of 16, the intelligent and spirited daughter of a country baronet, Sarah Brereton –the girl who would become the Sarah Tolerance that series fans know and admire– fell deeply in love with her brother’s fencing instructor, and he with her. (For modern readers, it’s important to recognize that in that day, teens were expected to mature and become responsible early; 16-year-old girls might well be married. So this wasn’t some sort of sick, pedophilic situation; Sarah was a young woman with the passion and impetuousness of youth, but in her society she was a woman, not a child, and Charles Connell was a normal, decent male.) Because of the class difference and paternal opposition, though, this relationship didn’t lead to a happy engagement and marriage, but to a hasty flight to the Continent, with Sarah disgraced, disowned by her family, and consigned to permanent Fallen Woman status. (Fallen men in her culture didn’t suffer any similar opprobrium.)

Like many people in that pre-antibiotic era, Connell died young, leaving her in effect a widow without ever having technically been a wife. Now, some 12 years later (we’re up to April, 1811 in this volume), she’s living in London under an assumed name, to spare her family from embarrassment. To support herself without resorting to the usual expedient of prostitution (friendless and helpless women in that environment being, pretty much invariably, sexually exploited women), she’s created the profession of “agent of inquiry” –a private investigator, in our parlance– for herself, putting her unique abilities to use. She’s smart, inquisitive, brave, able to move in a range of social circles and to pass for a man when she needs to, well trained by Connell in the use of a sword, and not afraid to pack and use a pistol. (In this volume, the level of violence in her physical altercations is again dialed down to the one-star level; but her weapons do come out, and she can definitely defend herself with aplomb.)

Her latest client is a young married woman, who desperately wants Sarah to find and rescue the lady’s 16-year-old younger sister (daughter of a peer), who’s disappeared, leaving behind a note indicating that she’s eloped with an unnamed lover. Obviously, this case stirs some very deep-seated feelings for Sarah. It will get more personal and wrenching, rather than less, as she investigates. And series fans won’t be surprised that there’s more to the mystery than at first meets the eye.

Many of my general comments on the preceding two books of the series apply to this one as well. Robins’ prose style and characterizations are as fine as ever; not just Sarah, but all of the characters (good and bad) are thoroughly real people whom we like, pity or detest. (Some are old friends from the earlier books, some are newly met.) The period flavor is as rich and rewarding as ever. (As usual, a concluding “Note on History, Faux and Real” explains the historical background, and where the author’s slightly alternate world diverges from ours in a few details.) Considering the kind of case our heroine is investigating, and the fact that she lives in a cottage behind her (also Fallen –“the black ewe of her generation”) aunt’s high-class brothel and has a prostitute for a close friend, sexual content here is relatively minimal. We also get a glimpse here of Sarah in church, which helps to deepen her character. Like many people of that day –including Jane Austen herself, a writer whose influence Robins readily admits– she doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but it’s there, to a lot greater extent than some of the more ostentatiously pious might give her credit for. (Then and now, many of the latter tend to forget that a Christian society has to be, first and foremost, a community of forgiveness.) And the volume isn’t simply treading water in terms of the development of the series; there’s significant growth and change in relationships here.

Why, then, only four stars, when the two previous books got five? For only one reason. Here, in the resolution/explanation of the skullduggery at the heart of events, there’s one major logical contradiction (which is impossible to explain without a spoiler). Robins papers it over without any real explanation (and it’s possible she actually didn’t recognize it herself!), but because it’s central to the resolution of the book, I had to reluctantly deduct a star for it. But it’s still a great read!

A couple of notes are relevant on the way words were used differently in 1811 than today. First, a clergyman here is said to be “Unitarian.” Today’s “Unitarians” are somewhat similar to the “Deists” of Sarah’s day (except that most today would be even more skeptical, and less willing to accept a label of Christian, or even of theistic). “Unitarians” in Sarah’s world, however (like the slightly later March family in Little Women) were what are sometimes called “Biblical Unitarians,” holding orthodox views on the atonement and the authority of Scripture, and definitely not Deists –in other words, much more conservative than the term suggests today. Second, the word “whore” is used in these books simply as the normal word for what we would today call a prostitute. Obviously, it was an inherently insulting term to apply to a woman who was NOT in that trade, but for those who were, it didn’t have any particularly insulting connotation; the girls themselves used it as a normal self-designation. No speaker today would use it, even to a woman who is a sex worker, without a deliberate intention to hurt and demean; but in 1811, there generally is no such intention (and usually no such effect).

This is the latest Sarah Tolerance book to date –published in 2011, seven years after the previous one. It isn’t clear whether Robins intends to continue the series past this point. If not, there are features to this volume that could make it a satisfactory conclusion to what will then be a trilogy. But if the author does ever intend, in the future, to visit Sarah’s London again, I and I’m sure a goodly number of other fans will eagerly come along for the ride!

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

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Strange Empire

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“Strangely appealing.”

strangemepireThis Canadian TV series ran for 13 episodes, but was not renewed at the end of the first series, leaving the double shock which occurred at the end of the final episode, with no hope of resolution. That’s a shame, since there was a lot to like about its grubby portrayal of 1869 life, just north of the border between Canada and Montana. It begins when a wagon train of settlers, passing near the mining settlement of Janestown, is attacked and almost all the men are killed or driven away, leaving the women to fend for themselves. In particular, there is Kat Loving (Gee), a half-Indian sharpshooter who seeks the truth about her husband’s fate, and Rebecca Blithely (Farman), a female medical researcher, something almost unheard of at the time. But they are up against John Slotter (Poole), who runs Janestown as his own personal fiefdom, and whose wife Isabelle (Jones) is a match for the new arrivals in terms of her wits, and likely surpasses them when it comes to crafting of intrigues.

It’s the characters – the three women, and let’s not forget John, who eventually becomes the glue that binds them together in common cause – which drive this. Kat is certainly the most conventionally “heroic,” becoming the town’s sheriff, a position which brings her into direct conflict with Slotter; yet, she also has a murky past, being a wanted woman for the murder of a surveyor. Rebecca is the most difficult to get a handle on; while possessing a brilliant mind, she has a near-total lack of “people skills”, to the point of near-sociopathy. Finally, Isabelle possesses no scruples and is prepared to do absolutely whatever may be necessary to achieve her goals and escape her low-born upbringing – including seducing her husband’s father, when access to his money becomes necessary. They make a fascinating trio, well-drawn and well-portrayed by the actresses concerned.

The past year has seen a number of new takes on the Western genre, from Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight to The RevenantEmpire does, perhaps, try somewhat too hard to be subversively revisionist, not least in the gratuitously transgender “cowboy”, who seems to have been added to the story for no reason than to appeal to trendy modern sensibilities. It’s much better when not attempting to pander to those, sticking with the Slotters’ efforts to keep their teetering mine business afloat, along with its probably more profitable brothel sideline, by any means necessary. This is balanced with Kat’s refusal to let John act like some kind of medieval baron, and insistence that he face the consequences of his murderous actions, which are becoming increasingly more frequent – if she can’t get justice for the massacre of the male settlers, perhaps there are other crimes that can be pinned on him.

While there are a number of side-threads (the strong role of Chinese businessman Ling is also very interesting), it’s this which drives the plot forward, and I was kept watching in the fervent hope of seeing Slotter get what he deserves. It’s to the show’s credit, with its unwillingness to collapse into a simple “black hat/white hat” mentality, that the outcome remained in doubt until almost the last few minutes of the final episode.

Created by: Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik
Star: Cara Gee, Melissa Farman, Tattiawna Jones, Aaron Poole