Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man

Book Review: Felifax the Tiger Man by Paul Feval fils

Sir Eric Palmer, the world’s greatest detective, is about to retire on his daughter Grace’s eighteenth birthday.  He’s looking forward to taking up gardening in Cornwall and becoming a full time grandfather (Grace is beautiful and accomplished, surely a suitable young gentleman will snap her up quickly.)  But he’s abruptly called in by Scotland Yard.

Felifax the Tiger Man

A baffling series of weird incidents in Benares, India have come to the British government’s attention.  There are rumors of a “tiger man” in the area who might be a threat to the colonial government.  Would Sir Eric please look into this for them?

So the noble detective (and Grace, having invited herself along) depart for India to learn what they can.  It turns out there really is a tiger man, dubbed “Felifax” by a certain Brahman priest.  This encounter is inconclusive, but back in London, a series of bizarre murders suggest that Felifax is more bloodthirsty than previously shown.

This book is by a second-generation French author of pulp-style adventure fiction, and translated by Brian Stableford, who also provides an introduction, postscript and end notes.  Per Mr. Stableford, Mr. Feval was a very fast writer who didn’t do a lot of planning ahead.  In this book in particular, the “Sherlock Holmes meets Tarzan” genre clash produces some plot issues that are clumsily handled, and require authorial juggling to resolve by the end.

It’s difficult to discuss this volume without going into heavy spoilers, so I will sum up here, and then go on to a spoiler section.  It’s an interesting read with some cool ideas, some bad ideas, and uneven execution.  Content warning for rape and torture.  Recommended for people who like the more out-there pulps.

SPOILERS from this point on–you have been warned.

The Tiger Man’s origin story is not quite what you might have expected from my using the word “Tarzan.”  Rather than being raised by tigers, young Rama (his real name) is the result of a bizarre mad science experiment.  The priest Sourina and an English doctor artificially inseminate beautiful temple dancer Siva with tiger semen.  This does not quite work, and the result is hideously deformed and stillborn.

However, the English doctor invokes Lamarckian genetics, and has Sourina make Siva  have dubiously-consented sex with handsome young Brahman Rao.  The result of this pairing is a human-looking baby with faint brown stripes, unusual strength and speed, and the scent of a tiger.  Sourina murders Rao and has Siva imprisoned as soon as the baby can survive without her, then raises “Felifax” with tigers in his temple of Kali.  (The English doctor is deported from India for unrelated bad behavior.)

When Felifax reaches adulthood, he seeks freedom in the jungle, but also begins a campaign of terror against Sourina to get the priest to release Djina, a young girl who’d been raised in the temple with him.  These actions set off the plot with Sir Eric.

The first half of the book takes place in India, and the depiction of Benares (now Varanasi) owes more to stereotypes and imaginative fiction than to reality.  If it’s any comfort, the second half in England is equally dubious, as it has Newgate Prison and transportation to Australia surviving into the 1920s and a British man doing the “kiss on the cheek to show respect” thing no Englishman of the time would have done.

There’s a bit of period sexism and racism, though the latter is undercut when Sir Eric has to back up his fine words about all men being brothers when Grace falls in love with Rama.

There’s also a scene where the narration becomes creepy as it points out that Djina has the hots for Rama, she’s very attractive, and thirteen is considered of marriageable age in India–but not to worry, eighteen year old Rama thinks of her as a sister.  Thanks, narration.

To keep the story from ending early, Sir Eric is laid up with illness for most of the first half, then retires to Cornwall in the second half.  So the murders (which are nicely inventive) are investigated by a new character, Inspector Sullivan.  He’s introduced as the world’s second-greatest detective and the personally chosen successor of Sir Eric.

And he does great for a couple of chapters.  But then the author remembers that he has to bring Sir Eric back to tie up the plotline, so Sullivan rapidly degenerates into a complete stooge.  (And then the narration pretends it knew this all along.)  He spends some time pursuing a petty criminal named Blood-drinker (it’s never made clear if that’s the man’s actual name or an alias) who happens to be innocent of these particular crimes, then fastens on Felifax, who’s in town with the circus.

Meanwhile, there has been no mystery for the reader, as we know that the evil priest Sourina is the real master of the circus, and is carrying out his vengeance against the British occupiers of his homeland.  Sir Eric figures out the truth, though Sourina escapes in a sequel hook.

One of the most disappointing bits is that although Rama gets to show off his powers on various animals, the author goes to great lengths to prevent him from ever ripping a human opponent apart with his bare hands.  I mean, seriously, you have a tiger man with an anger-triggered super mode, and he never gets to kill anyone?

Oh, and meanwhile, Grace has developed a cure for smelling like a tiger, which allows her and Rama to hook up.

There are lots of individual scenes that are good, but the novel as a whole doesn’t hold together.   Read it for the good bits.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Book Review: The Mida

Book Review: The Mida by Lyle Ernst & Kimberly Sigafus

Tony was little when his parents died and left him in the care of his grandmother Nola.  She tried the best she could to raise him in the tiny community of Farmingdale, Iowa, but it’s 1952 now and he’s a grown man.  Tony’s made some bad life choices which are about to come back and bite him, as he’s accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend.  As if that wasn’t stressful enough, it turns out his mother isn’t dead after all, and she and the carnival she manages just appeared in town.

The Mida

The Mida, as it happens, is no ordinary carnival.  For one thing, it’s a “Sunday school”, which means no rigged games or other cheats.  More relevantly to the plot of this story, the carnival is mystic in nature, traveling through time and place to where it needs to be.  A number of the carnies have special abilities ranging from eidetic memory to being “a Wiccan goddess” granted by their employment.  Mesa, the manager, knows that the Mida has arrived in 1952 Iowa for Tony, but is reluctant to face the son  she abandoned all those years ago.  Especially as the carnival is being stalked by the dark spirit Jiibay, who has finally caught up to them.

This is the first of three (so far) fantasy books about the Mida.  Ojibwa lore is woven into the narrative, but is not the main thing going on.  For most of the book, the non-supernatural murders are the focus plotline.  It’s not much of a mystery for the reader as the story has multiple viewpoint characters, including the murderer.

Good stuff: a fairly diverse cast, not all of whom are the stereotypes they first appear to be from one viewpoint.  A fairly sensible and intelligent sheriff, who gets to be useful even though this is a fantasy book.

Not so good:  Little to nothing is done with the time travel aspect of the plot.  Most of the carnies probably wouldn’t take advantage of future knowledge for profit because of their personal morality or lack of solid opportunities, but there’s no mention by anyone of changes in technology or customs.  Conveniently, Mesa has aged enough in her travels so that no one doubts she’s the right age to be Tony’s mother.  Other than some mention of contemporary baseball players, there’s almost nothing that makes the setting feel like the early 1950s as opposed to any post World War Two but pre-21st Century rural town.

There are eight main carnies who form a “circle” although this is apparently the first most of them have known that; all get at least a little development.  But then there are thirteen Gatekeepers who also work at the carnival and that the Eight aren’t supposed to know about as they are the guardians of the Eight.  Most of them don’t even get named, let alone individual attention.  And presumably there are even more carnies that aren’t in either of those groups.  With all these people and the townsfolk, the book is jam-packed and some characters just get lost in the shuffle.

There’s some brief transphobia, but oddly enough no anti-Native American prejudice is ever brought up.  Abuse is in some characters’ backstory, and some of the carnies have been criminals in the past.

This is very obviously a first novel and self-published (a few spellchecker typos); later books in the series may show improvement.

Recommended to people who like weird carnival-set stories.

 

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

Book Review: Rayla 2212

Book Review: Rayla 2212 by Ytasha L. Womack

It is the year 2212, and the once utopian Planet Hope has fallen under the dictatorship of The Dirk.  Rayla Illmatic, aka Rayla Redfeather, daughter of a missing astronaut, has joined the resistance.  When rebel leader Carcine, who Rayla likes a lot, disappears on a mission to find mystic/scientist Moulan Shakur, she must take up the quest.  It is Rayla’s destiny to find the missing astronauts scattered in Earth’s past, and restore the balance of her world.  Or is it?

Rayla 2212

This is the first science fiction novel by Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack; it is set in a future where “race” as it is currently understood is no longer a relevant concept, but carrying forward the vitality of African-American culture and its African roots.  This is more revolutionary than it should be, due to inertia making straight white middle-class American men the default protagonists of most SF.  Notably, when the story goes back to 20th Century Earth, racism is mentioned but isn’t at all a focus in that section.

The primary “big idea” is that linear space-time is a social construct.  Properly-trained people of sufficient mental strength can teleport to where/when they choose.  However, Planet Hope’s society began to unravel when all the astronauts with this training failed to come back from a mission; Rayla’s father reappeared momentarily some time later, but just as quickly vanished again.  Moulan, who came up with the training, enlists Rayla’s help in relocating the lost.

However, we learn that Moulan is keeping secrets from Rayla, as is Rayla’s new partner Delta Blue.  Rayla’s memories have been tampered with more than once, and the people she meets warn her against each other while withholding information our heroine thinks might be important.  She also notes that her “destiny” never seems to be anything she actually wants to do with her life.

I’m reminded of the New Wave speculative fiction of the 1970s, both because of the multiple layers of deception and fluid nature of reality (is Rayla participating in the past or is she shaping it?), and in the “experimental” feel of the writing.  There are quotes, most relevant, interrupting the narrative from time to time, as well as soundtrack recommendations–this tapers off as the book progresses.  Despite the non-linear nature of space-time in the story, the narrative itself is mostly linear with some flashbacks.

This edition of the book was self-published, and there are multiple spellchecker typos and misplaced quotation marks.  I also found the ending rather muddled and arbitrary; perhaps this is to allow for the sequel, conveniently titled Rayla 2213.  There’s some on-page non-explicit sex.

This book would be of most interest to readers wanting to sample Afrofuturism, or looking for a protagonist who’s not the standard SF model.

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image

Book Review: Father of Lies | Mirror Image by John Brunner and Bruce Duncan, respectively.

Belmont Books was a minor publisher of paperback books with a specialty in speculative fiction, which lasted from 1960 to 1971.  Apparently in an effort to mimic the success of Ace Doubles, they produced a series of “Belmont Doubles” that tucked two novellas into one book, but without the reversed printing that made Ace’s books distinctive.  This particular volume was printed in 1968.  While the two stories have little in common, the cover blurb does a good job of linking them.

Father of Lies | Mirror Image

“Father of Lies” is by John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar) and features a group of seven amateur parapsychologists.  After a failed attempt to find a “Nessie” type creature in another loch, one of them interests the others in investigating a circle of land in England that seems to have dropped off the memory of everyone outside it, to the point that the maps don’t match what can be observed of the territory.

The team learns that after a certain point into “the Blank Space” modern technology doesn’t work.  The people inside seem to be in a medieval social stasis, and one of the team who happens to have studied older forms of English is told by the locals that there’s an ogre about.  When another of the group, Miles, enters from a different direction, he learns that there’s also a dragon.  He also sees modern tire treads heading into the territory and decides to investigate–then vanishes!

There’s some fascinating Arthurian stuff going on, and a couple of exciting scenes involving the ogre and dragon.  Plus, Miles meets a naked modern woman named Vivien who’s about to become a human sacrifice.  The tension is high in places.  The title does come into play, but not as you would normally expect it to.

The characterization is kind of lacking; two of the seven parapsychology team never show up in person or have lines, and most of the rest get one personality trait each.  Miles and Vivien aren’t much better off, getting “bookish fellow who finds his inner hero” and “modern independent woman with no identifiable skill set but is very brave.”  The villain is also kind of shallow, childishly evil.

The ending is kind of abrupt, with the reveal of what’s been going on in a rushed infodump after an important character dies.

“Mirror Image” is by Bruce Duncan, which turns out to be a pen name for Irving A. Greenfield (Only the Dead Speak Russian).  Go-go dancer Trudy Lane drops dead in the street, but when she’s autopsied an hour later, the doctor finds that she’s been dead over seventy-two hours.  New York police detective Luis Santiago is saddled with this bizarre case, which only gets weirder when another Trudy Lane body shows up cut in half and stuffed in trash cans.

Meanwhile, America’s most advanced nuclear submarine, the Triton, sails out on a secret mission.  There’s some concern about Petty Officer Second Class Warren Hall, who got a “Dear John” letter just before going on shore leave.  He disappeared for several hours during the night, but they do know he was seen with a go-go dancer named…Trudy Lane.  Hall admits that he spent time with her, but lies about another man he was seen with at the Mermaid Club.  Odd.

The reader is not left in suspense long.  (Imagine that meme with the guy from  the History Channel saying “ALIENS”.)  Yes, aliens are invading the Earth and replacing certain people with robots under their command.

The best parts of the story are the bits from the perspective of the Hall robot, which has the parts of Hall’s memories the aliens considered essential, but doesn’t really grok human behavior.  It’s not quite to the level of “Hello, fellow humans.” but Hall keeps doing or saying things that set off people’s uncanny valley instincts.

The aliens appear to have some form of mind-control ability as well, but this is inconsistently portrayed.  The lead alien’s exposition is deadpan enough that it’s almost funny.

It’s a decent enough story, but again the characterization is lacking, and thus the parts that should be thrilling as the submarine is taken over fall flat.

Mostly I recommend this for the John Brunner completist as the previous published version of “Father of Lies” in  Science Fantasy #52 (April 1962) will be even harder to find.

Book Review: Wintersmith

Book Review: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training.  She in some ways is already a very powerful witch, and has endured some hard lessons that required growing up fast.  But she’s also very much a girl who’s almost thirteen.  Miss Treason, on the other hand, is over a century old and has not been a “girl” in a very long time.  So when she tells Tiffany not to move during a dance, it doesn’t occur to her to explain what the dance is or why moving during it is a bad idea.  Tiffany senses a spot in the dance that seems to be shaped for her, and her feet dance her right in.

Wintersmith

That was a huge mistake, as the dance is the change of seasons.  And now the Wintersmith, the personification of winter, has become fascinated by Tiffany.  He sees her as the Summer Lady somehow in his time, and wants to hold her forever.  And if Tiffany doesn’t make it to spring, then spring will never come…..

This is the third Tiffany Aching book within the Discworld setting; the first book in the sequence is The Wee Free Men.  Tiffany is a farm girl who grew up in sheep-herding country called The Chalk.  She’s very practical and straightforward, which serves her well in witchcraft.  (In the Discworld setting, witchcraft, while it certainly includes a heaping of magic, is more about being a “wise woman” who provides skills and knowledge to a rural area.)  On the other hand, she is very young and has many things to learn, and sometimes Tiffany will get her back up and turn stubborn at the wrong moment.

Tiffany is aided as always by the Nac Mac Feegles, tiny blue men that combine the more disturbing aspects of Smurfs with the more violent aspects of highland Scotsmen stereotypes.  They have their own special dialect, and there’s a glossary at the front that also helps readers and parents know what they’re in for with the Feegles.  The tiny men provide much of the comic relief in the book, and are usually annoyances, but they are helpful when pointed in the right direction.

As well, Tiffany interacts with the community of witches, from the fearsome Miss Treason who has mastered the art of Boffo, through the harsh but highly competent Granny Weatherwax and jolly Nanny Ogg to the vain and in way over her head Annagramma.  Each of them has lessons to teach Tiffany (yes, even Annagramma has her uses) and help her on the way in her Story.

And Roland, the baron’s son, Tiffany’s friend who is a boy, comes into play as he has his own problems, but sets them aside for the time being to be the Hero that the Story needs at a crisis point.  His highly unpleasant aunts sound like they will be an issue in the next volume.

The Wintersmith, of course, is the antagonist of the book.  As the anthropomorphic personification of the idea of winter, it isn’t evil.  But Tiffany’s mistake has thrown the Wintersmith out of balance, and unbalanced winter is highly dangerous.  Worse, it’s trying to make itself more human without understanding what that means or caring about the effects it has on others.  It chillingly (pun intended) follows a children’s rhyme about what “makes a man” until it gets to the most important ingredients and just skips those.  It’s both funny and scary when the Wintersmith tells random people “I am a human being.”

A nice twist of the book is that it starts with a version of the final showdown between Tiffany and the Wintersmith, then rewinds the story, reminding the reader “the future is always a bit wobbly.”  When we reach the ending again, things are somewhat different.

This is listed as a “Young Adult” book but should be fine for precocious middle-schoolers on up.  Some parents may be disturbed by references to sex and childbirth (no gory details), but it makes sense in setting; Tiffany’s a farm girl with older sisters in a society that doesn’t shy away from those topics.  But the important thing here is relationships and learning how to say “no” to ones that are not a good idea.  Younger readers should probably start with the first Tiffany Aching book.

Recommended to fantasy fans, young readers and fans of practical, straightforward women.

Book Review: China Dolls

Book Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

It is 1938, the tail end of the Great Depression, and San Francisco is trying to shake off its blues with a World’s Fair on Treasure Island.  They’re going to need a lot of employees for that, and the prospect of a job draws Grace Lee all the way from Ohio.  She’s from a small town where her parents were the only other people of Chinese ancestry; all these other people who look kind of like her is a bit of a shock.

China Dolls

It turns out that the World’s Fair can’t use a Chinese dancer, but there’s a nightclub called the Forbidden City that’s hiring, and they only want Chinese.  On her way there, Grace gets some help from Helen Fong, a young woman from a traditionalist family, and when they arrive, they meet Ruby Tom, a vivacious woman who’s changed her name because Japanese-Americans have an even tougher time getting good jobs than Chinese-Americans.

The three women try out together, and although only two are chosen at that time, they form a life-long bond.  However, each of them has secrets in their past, and those combine with their ambitions to turn them against each other as well.  World War Two in particular raises the stakes, and their careers and friendship may never recover.

This book is loosely based on real life Asian-American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, and there’s an interview with some of those real people at the end of the paperback edition I read.

Grace makes a good viewpoint character for the first part of the novel; her parents were very insistent on her being “American” so she’s a complete newcomer to Chinese-American culture and the full array of prejudice faced by Asian-Americans outside of her small town.  The reader learns along with her.  Helen and Ruby also have sections from their viewpoints, but at first are concealing details from the reader as well as their friends–we don’t learn some important information about Helen until nearly the end of the book.

Some of the behavior of the protagonists is pretty shabby, and a couple of the betrayals go well beyond what would break most friendships permanently.  Some readers may find it impossible to believe that the characters even speak to each other after what happens.

All three protagonists also have romantic difficulties.  Mistakes are made, and attitudes change over the years.  One of the characters winds up in a relationship that’s considerably less than ideal from just about every angle.

As you might have guessed, period racism and sexism play a considerable part in the story, as well as period homophobia.  Grace’s backstory involves domestic abuse.  There’s some use of period slurs, lampshaded towards the end by a modern-day (1980s) college student asking pointed questions about the attitudes of the past.

I’d recommend this book to people curious about the “chop suey circuit” that Asian-American performers were shunted into during the Twentieth Century–the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition is designed for use by book clubs.

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