The Tribe

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“Who knew the post-apocalypse could be dull?”

Disease has wiped out most of civilization, and left those who have survived, scrambling to cope. Better equipped than most are sisters Jenny (Rothe), Sarah (Winters) and silent little Danika (Jones). For their father was a doomsday prepper, who created a “bug out” cabin in the desert, stocked with all the necessities to survive. However, neither he nor their mother are around any longer: the former died during the crisis, and the latter went out to seek help and never returned. So it’s all down to the sisters, who have been reminded about the golden rule, time and again, by their Dad: do not let anyone in, under any circumstances.

This rule is tested beyond its breaking point when Ryan (Nardelli) shows up. He seems to have a bond with Danika; the other two siblings are unable to agree on how to proceed. In the end, older sister Jenny over-rules the far more suspicious Sarah, and Ryan joins their little community. But as Jenny and Ryan start to form a relationship, seeds are being sown to destroy the peaceful and remote life the family have been fortunate enough to enjoy. And that’s not necessarily just the result of Ryan’s hidden agenda, either. Because the psychological pressures of living on the edge of survival will eventually take their toll on even the hardiest of personalities.

Although the bloody conclusion which results is somewhat satisfying, you have to sit through an enormous amount of “jaw-jaw” before you can get to the “war-war”. For the first hour-plus, the biggest threat in this apocalypse appears to be dying of boredom. This is likely a side-effect of the limited budget, perhaps in conjunction with the makers’ apparent interest in making this a relationship drama, rather than the action-packed survival story promised by the sleeve and trailer. The pacing is particularly awful: the question of whether Ryan is the innocent he seems, seems to be answered far too early. Once that happens, you’re left with very little in the way of development, the film doing the cinematic equivalent of endlessly circling the mall, looking for a really good parking spot.

I was reminded, significantly, of The Last Survivors, which takes a similar setting and teenage lead character, but does significantly better in the pacing department – although is still short of perfect. The main difference is that the payoff there is worth the wait, and it doesn’t try to make up for a leaden first half with a sudden late flurry of action. The flaws in that department here are a shame, since the performances here are not the problem, particularly Jones as the youngest, entirely mute sister. She has extraordinarily expressive eyes, and gets to use them to excellent effect in a number of scenes. She is probably the best mute post-apocalyptic child – a particularly niche character genre, I appreciate – since the Feral Kid in Mad Max 2.

Dir: Roxy Shih
Star: Jessica Rothe, Anne Winters, Chloe Beth Jones, Michael Nardelli

Girl of Fire, by Norma Hinkens

Literary rating: starstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2actionhalf

You might be forgiven for expecting something Hunger Games-like, given Katniss was referred to frequently as the “girl on fire,” only one letter different from the title here. That really isn’t the case at all: though both are, broadly speaking, science-fiction, instead of an urban dystopia, this is sprawling space opera. The heroine, 17-year-old Trattora, lives on Cwelt, a fringe planet largely overlooked and bypassed by the rest of the galaxy. She’s a chieftain’s daughter there, but was adopted, and is clearly different from the rest of her people; she yearns to find the truth about her ancestry.

Her chance comes in the form of a trade-ship, captained by the untrustworthy Sarth. For it’s discovered that Cwelt is a source for dargonite, a mineral now in high demand for its use in cloaking technology. Before this can be announced, the planet comes under threat from the raiding Maulers, and Trattora strikes an uneasy bargain with the visiting captain, to sell dargonite in order to buy ships which can defend Cwelt. However, after an apparent double-cross, Trattora steals Sarth’s ship from under her nose, and strikes out on her own, to take care of business – and also locate her biological parents.

The latter thread doesn’t occupy much of this, the first volume in a trilogy called ‘The Expulsion Project’. That title is explained at the beginning: proceedings open with her parents on Mhakerta, sending Trattora into space, in a last-ditch effort to escape the clutches of an all-powerful AI who has taken over their planet. The only thing Trattora has left as a link with her parents is a bracelet – when she finds a similar item belonging to Velkan, an indentured serf in Serth’s crew, she realizes there are apparently others like her. But this book is more concerned with her attempting to sell the valuable minerals, and adapting to life in a universe very different from the one to which she is used.

The cover is rather misleading, since as soon as Trattora gets off the surface of Cwelt, she more or less abandons the “barbarian chic” aesthetic, as far as I can tell. Probably wise: carrying a spear around would likely attract undue attention in any space-faring civilization. Indeed, she largely avoids violence, hence the low kick-butt quotient. She still qualifies here, due to what would probably be described on her resume as “a pro-active approach to problem-solving, demonstrated ability at adapting to new situations, and proven leadership skills.” She’s certainly brave, prepared to risk everything to save her adopted home planet, loyal to her friends, and resourceful – all-round, she has the qualities of a good heroine.

I’m less convinced with the writing when it comes to the universe building, beginning with planet names which feel like the author made them up by pulling tiles from a Scrabble bag. You don’t get much sense of a structured universe, despite the apparently overwhelming presence of “The Syndicate”, a group whose power is vaguely ineffectual, except when necessary to the plot. This is where the “space opera” label becomes something of a double-edged sword. While I appreciated the brisk pace, Trattora and her pals whizzing from one incident to the next, the idea of a teenage girl hijacking a spaceship on her first trip off-world, from its far more world-wise captain, with most of the crew supporting her, was only one of a number of moments which stretched my credulity. It was just far too easy.

This probably falls into the category of a fun read rather than a good one, and is thoroughly disposable fluff. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, this likely panders a little too much in the direction of the young adult audience, to be entirely acceptable for anyone who has grown out of that group.

Author: Norma Hinkens
Publisher: Dunecadia Publishing, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

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)

Miracles Still Happen

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“Truth is certainly more entertaining than fiction.”

We documented elsewhere the incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke, who survived a two-mile fall from the sky, then 10 days alone in the Amazon rain-forest. Naturally, it wasn’t long before a “true-life adventure” version of the story made its way to the screen, starring English actress Susan Penhaligon as Juliane. Outside of Penhaligon, and the actor and actress who play Koepcke’s father and mother (Muller and Galvani), the hook here is that everyone else plays themselves, such as the people involved in the search and rescue mission, for example.

Unfortunately, it isn’t much of a hook, because they didn’t really do much. Like finding the freakin’ plane, it being left up to Koepcke more or less to rescue herself, walking out of the jungle to be found by some very surprised loggers, ten days after the crash. Thus, you get a lot of footage of people flying planes, taking off, landing, radioing in for instructions… None of which adds significantly to the atmosphere, or adds any factual notes of importance. The film is also hamstrung by the very fact this is a saga of solo adventure, which means that once Juliana hits the ground like a giant lawn-dart, it’s her against the jungle. And the jungle isn’t exactly a witty, sparkling conversationalist.

Working around this, Scotese makes heavy use of flashbacks and voiceover. It does stick relatively closely to the facts of the narrative. There is some scathing criticism of this film in Werner Herzog’s documentary about her ordeal, Wings of Hope; Herzog describes it as “extraordinarily bad”, and Koepcke pans Penhaligon for stumbling through the jungle “with the look of a hunted doe” (as shown above!). However, she did apparently consult with the creators – likely further than certain Italian moviemakers would have gone, especially in the seventies. So most of the key moments do agree with what Juliane has said over the years. For instance, she did remember a key survival lesson about finding a stream and following it down, and she did stumble across some crash victims, briefly wondering if they included her mother, with whom she had flown.

It’s generally better off when it simply concentrates on the perilous jungle, especially the moments when you get some idea of scale. The Amazon is big, folks. Credit also due to Penhaligon, who gets steadily more disheveled over the course of what can’t have been an easy film to shoot. She certainly gets closer to a very large anaconda than I would have been prepared to go! But watching her stagger, increasingly bedraggled, around the rainforest is something that isn’t enough to sustain interest. We can only wonder what the results might have been like had Herzog, who narrowly escaped being on the plane which crashed (doing location scouting for Aguirre, Wrath of God), directed this instead.

Oddly, this is credited to ‘Brut Productions’, which was the film production division of cosmetics company Fabergé. I say oddly, because those of a certain age and location will remember 70’s commercials in which heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper touted “the great smell of Brut” aftershave. Seeing its logo pop up in the opening credits here was certainly unexpected. I may well remember that much more than the rest of the film

Dir: Giuseppe Maria Scotese
Star: Susan Penhaligon, Paul Muller, Graziella Galvani

The incredible, true survival story of Juliane Koepcke

Surviving when the plane in which you’re flying, disintegrates around you at a height of 10,000 feet is remarkable enough. When you land in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most hostile environments on Earth, and have to make it alone for more than a week, with virtually no resources, as you try to find your way to safety, that’s astonishing.

If you’re a 17-year-old girl? It’s off the charts amazing.

Admittedly, Juliane Koepcke was not your average teenager. Indeed, she could hardly have been better prepared for her ordeal. Her family moved to a research station in the Peruvian rainforest when she was 14, so her father, zoologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, could continue his work. Juliane was initially home-schooled, and the curriculum covered much more than the traditional three R’s. She said, “I’d lived in the jungle long enough as a child to be acquainted with the bugs and other creatures that scurry, rustle, whistle, and snarl. There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle.” However, she was required to complete her education in the capital Lima. On Christmas Eve, 1971, she and her mother prepared to fly back from there to Pucallpa, the nearest airport to their home.

They would never arrive. The pilot made an ill-advised decision to fly through a thunderstorm, in a poorly maintained plane [the airline, LANSA, had a bad reputation for mechanical reliability, and would cease operations a few weeks later]. A lightning bolt hit the craft, igniting a fuel tank in the wing, and triggering catastrophic structural failure. Juliane fell two miles, still strapped to her seat; the protection it offered, together with the somewhat cushioned landing offered by the rainforest canopy, is likely why she became the sole survivor. She was not uninjured: she had a broken collarbone, a serious gash on her leg, a partial fracture of her shin and a torn knee ligament. Given the circumstances, though, it could have been much worse.

That was brought home later, after she came across some other victims: “When I turned a corner in the creek, I found a bench with three passengers rammed head first into the earth. I was paralysed by panic. It was the first time I had seen a dead body. I thought my mother could be one of them but when I touched the corpse with a stick, I saw that the woman’s toenails were painted – my mother never polished her nails.” With her sole piece of regular food a bag of candy, she had to try and make her way out. The key to her survival was finding a tiny rivulet, and following it downstream. She knew that this trickle would flow into a larger creek, and this in turn would join a river: eventually, she’d find people. Her quest was helped by hearing the call of a hoatzin, a bird Juliane recognized as nesting near open water.

Her wilderness knowledge helped when she reached the river too. The undergrowth along the bank was too dense to allow for progress, so Juliane opted to float down the middle. There, she knew potentially lethal stingrays won’t go, preferring the shallows, and also that piranhas are not a threat in quickly-moving water. But a cut on her arm had become infected with maggots, forcing her to extreme measures, after Juliane found a boat with a motor and a barrel of diesel fuel. “I remembered our dog had the same infection and my father had put kerosene in it, so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound. The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound. I pulled out about 30 maggots.”

She opted to spend the night there – her tenth in the jungle since the crash – and that proved to be her salvation. For she had stumbled across a seasonal camp belonging to some loggers, who were astonished to show up the next day and discover a blonde woman in their camp. Juliane recalls, “They believe in all sorts of ghosts there, and at first they thought that I was one of these water spirits called Yemanjá. They are blondes, supposedly.” They had heard about the crash on the radio, and took her downstream in their boat, to a local hospital that could tend her injuries, which now also included second-degree sunburn.

The authorities hadn’t been able to locate the crash site, but with Juliane’s help, they found it, and her mother’s body was eventually recovered on January 12, more than three weeks later. The creepiest thing? “My mother wasn’t dead when she fell from the plane. My father thought she’d survived for nearly two weeks – perhaps up to January 6, because when he went to identify her body it wasn’t as decomposed as you’d expect in that environment – it’s very warm and humid and there are lots of animals that would eat dead bodies. He thought she’d broken her backbone or her pelvis and couldn’t move.”

Juliane helped advise the makers of a movie based on her experiences (Miracles Still Happen, see below, or review here) and returned to the area in the early eighties, to study the area’s native bats. But it was close to two decades before she began to achieve closure. She returned to the crash site with German film-maker Werner Herzog, as part of his documentary Wings of Hope about her ordeal. Herzog was particularly well-suited to make the film, because when he was location scouting for his movie Aguirre, Wrath of God, he had initially been booked on the flight which crashed – only being saved by a last minute change in plans. Following that, Koepcke was able to write her own story, published as When I Fell from the Sky in 2011.

Below, you’ll find first Werner’s Herzog’s documentary Wings of Hope, and then the Italian feature film Miracles Still Happen, starring Susan Penhaligon, offering both factual and fictionalized versions of her remarkable story of survival. It’s truly one of the most incredible ever experienced and a testament to how knowledge can make all the difference between life and death.

Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

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“Criminal train of thought.”

After their mother has a meltdown at her job and ends up in jail: teenage sisters Deidra (Murray) and Laney (Crow, somewhat infamous for her post-elimination meltdown on The X Factor) are left to fend for themselves. With household bills piling up – never mind trying to fund Mom’s bail, or even Deidra’s long dreamed-of college tuition – and Child Protective Services looming, things look bleak. But a visit to deadbeat Dad Chet (Sullivan, channeling David Spade), who works for a railway company, gives Deidra an idea. Hop aboard the freight trains that run by the back of their house, pop open a container to take some goods, and fence them on for cash. Things go surprisingly well, until a disgruntled railroad cop, Truman (Nelson), starts to close in on the pair, intent on rebuilding his reputation after an incident in Arizona.

A somewhat awkward mix of elements, some not working as well as others, it still manages to survive and be entertaining. This is largely through sheer force of will from the lead characters, who manage to make you forget the actresses playing them are both too old for high school. The pair share a fierce bond, prepared to do anything for each other, even at the cost of their own dreams – for as well as Deidra’s education, Laney finds herself a finalist in a beauty pageant, which sets her at odds with her best friend at school, who is also a competitor. You know I said, some elements don’t work as well as others? That would be one of them: Drop Dead Gorgeous this isn’t.

It’s much better off when not trying too hard to be heartwarming. For example, the reason for Mom’s meltdown, turns out to be so saccharine as to provoke eye-rolling rather than tugging on your heart-strings. It has a nicely cynical edge about small-town life, such as the school guidance councilor who is as desperate as Deidra to get out of this dead-end – if only she could just get someone accepted to a college which doesn’t have “community” in its name… Like most of the adults here, there’s a sense of benign incompetence here: they don’t so much pose a threat to our two heroines, as bumble around and get in the way of them achieving their goals.

That these involve repeated grand larceny… Well, best not dwell on the implications there, regardless of how righteous the cause may be. For the lack of effort the pair put into any legal methods of fund-raising to solve their issues, could be seen as a troubling indictment of modern youth and entitlement culture. But it would be particularly tough to blame such an adorable pair of siblings, they appear to have strayed in from the Disney Channel. All snark aside, these are fun characters to watch bounce in and out of scrapes, and you can’t help pull for them as they turn into fun-sized versions of Ronnie Biggs.

Dir: Sydney Freeland
Star: Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow, Tim Blake Nelson, David Sullivan

Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

The Darkest Dawn

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“Illegal aliens”

darkestdawnThis is apparently a sequel to a previous movie about an alien invasion of Earth (and, specifically, the United Kingdom) from the same director, Hungerford. While I haven’t seen it, this likely didn’t impact things too much here; I sense it’s perhaps closer to a separate story, unfolding in the same universe, than a true sequel. It’s the story of teenage sisters Chloe (Leadley) and Sam (Wallis), with the former getting a video camera for her birthday – just in time for said invasion to kick off, with their family being separated in the ensuing chaos. Toting her camera, Chloe and her sibling take shelter, then scurry through the blasted landscape, facing the threat not just of the extra-terrestrials, but renegade bands of survivors. For it also turns out Chloe, specifically her blood, is a key to the resistance. What are the odds?

There’s a strong sense of Cloverfield here, with the alien threat glimpsed more in passing than directly. The major difference is probably the human element, since the sisters are in peril from other people, as much if not more than from the invaders. Of course, the whole “found footage” thing has been utterly done to death since Blair Witch – and I think even that was vastly over-rated. Here, it adds precious little to proceedings, and there’s not much which could have been done equally as well (or, arguably, better), with an external viewpoint. It has all the usual issues of the genre; most obviously, why the lead character keeps filming, when on multiple occasions common sense and survival instinct would dictate dumping the camera and legging it. But then, a more conventional approach probably would have led to the production costing a great deal more than £40,000 (approx. 1/500th that of Cloverfield).

The two leads are, I believe, YouTube stars rather than professional actresses, and that’s a bit of a double-edged sword. They do have a natural and unaffected quality, which helps their characters avoid falling into the irritating teenager trap. But they don’t have much more, and any time there is actual acting required – rather than reacting – then they come up short. While the script does give Chloe a decent arc, going from a typically self-obsessed teenage girl into a focused and determined young woman, the climax feels somewhat undercooked. It does not offer the viewer much in the way of resolution, I suspect because writer-director Casson perhaps wants to return to the same milieu in future.

While I wouldn’t be averse to that, I hope Casson (dear God, I just realized he’s only 22 and has already made and had released two cinematic features) stretches his talents into more than the found footage genre, since too often this is merely a crutch for low-budget film-makers, used to excuse away shaky camerawork and improvised dialogue. There’s some evidence of talent visible here, on both sides of the camera – providing you can get past the likely motion sickness this may cause.

Dir: Drew Casson
Star: Bethan Mary Leadley, Cherry Wallis, Stuart Ashen, Drew Casson

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki

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…