Book Review: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

Book Review: The Inugami Clan

Book Review: The Inugami Clan by Seishi Yokomizo

In a manor on the shores of Lake Nasu, an old man lies dying, surrounded by his kin.  But there is no sorrow for the passing of Sahei Inugami in their eyes, only greed for the vast fortune he will be leaving to his clan.  It seems that the relatives will have to wait to see how much money they get, as the will cannot be opened until the missing grandson, Kiyo, returns from Burma, where he was stranded after the war.

The Inugami Clan

Famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi is called in by an assistant of the family lawyer.  It seems that assistant made a terrible mistake and now realizes that murder will follow unless Kindaichi can prevent it–but the assistant is murdered in Kindaichi’s hotel room before the detective even meets him!  This is only a prelude to the terrible things that will happen once the blood-colored will is read….

Kosuke Kindaichi was the most successful series character created by famous Japanese mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo, appearing in over seventy stories.  (While the back of book blurb claims The Inugami Clan is the first book in the series, it’s actually at least the fifth.  It is, however, the most popular volume and the only one to be translated into English.)  He’s a fairly standard quirky detective–dressing in cheap, outdated clothing, stammering at emotional moments, and scratching his scalp furiously while thinking.  Apparently, Kindaichi has independent means, as he’s able to lounge around in a hotel room far from his Tokyo home for a couple of months without a paying client.

The case itself is an old-fashioned puzzle box, and it takes several deaths before Kindaichi finally figures it out.  All of the Inugami clan are suspicious characters, especially Kiyo, who wears a mask at all times, claiming to have been disfigured in the war.  Even the lovely Tamayo, who would in other stories seem to be a innocent target, shows a cold cunning from time to time.  But all the characters seem to have alibis for at least one of the murders, and the bizarre pun-based staging makes it probable the same person is behind all the events.

The setting of immediate post-World War Two Japan greatly shapes the story.  The will that’s central to setting off the murders would be invalid under American law, and the slowly returning soldiers are an important plot point.  (However, no mention at all is made of the American Occupation, or Americans in general.)

There are some gory corpses, an attempted rape, a torture scene told in flashback, and Sahei’s…unusual…sex life is important to several characters’ backstories.  This and the older-fashioned writing style makes this book less than suitable to young readers; I would rate it for senior high-school and up.

The translation appears to be out of print in the U.S.  Try inter-library loan for a mystery that will go well for fans of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie-type stories.

Here’s the trailer for the 1976 movie version–NSFW!

Book Review: The Wrath of Brotherhood

Book Review: The Wrath of Brotherhood by Ozgur K. Sahin

Captain Roy Toppings had planned to live a relatively peaceful life plying a small shipping route  between England and the Continent, but the murder of his sister by pirates set him  on a different course, and now he’s a privateer  operating out of Port Royal.

The Wrath of BrotherhoodRoy’s quest for the man who he blames for his sister’s death has to be put on hold for the moment.  It seems that the Spanish are up to something big, and the Dutch colony of Curaçao is in imminent danger.  Can  the crew of The Constance and their new-found allies save the day?

This is the first novel by Minnesota writer Ozgur K. Sahin, and the first in a projected “The Brotherhood of the Spanish Main” pirate fiction series.  The setting is the Caribbean Sea circa the Restoration of Charles II in the 17th Century.

It’s interesting to compare the character attitudes to earlier pirate-themed works I’ve read.  Captain Toppings is remarkably non-sexist and -racist for his time, as well as anti-slavery  a good century ahead of most people.  He’s hired Ajuban, an African ex-slave, as his first mate, and soon signs on refugee Incan woman Coya as a scout.  The crew is rounded out with other quirky characters, most with “nice” personalities.   One character is depicted as being more romantically inclined towards Coya than she’s comfortable with, but this is shown entirely from her point of view and as of yet he has confined himself to attempting to talk to her when she doesn’t want to.

The plot breezes by with an acceptable level of coincidence, but the one concern I have is that the crew’s luck is a bit too good–one or two well-timed setbacks   would have ratcheted up the tension.  Perhaps this will happen in the sequel, since there’s a very obvious hook.

There is talk of torture, and it’s made clear that the privateers will resort to it if they must (there’s a minor character who does this professionally), but none occurs on-stage.

Some use of dialect is genre-appropriate, but I know it ticks off some readers.

That said, although this book was written for adults, it should be okay for pirate-loving junior high readers on up.   I like the handsome hardcover edition with endpaper maps, but the perfectly acceptable ebook version is more affordable and will also help keep the author fed.

A good first novel, recommended for fans of pirate tales.

 

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11

Manga Review: Ooku 10 & 11 by Fumi Yoshinaga

Quick recap:  In an alternate Shogunate Japan, a plague wipes out 80% of the men, requiring women to take over most of the jobs previously held by males.  This includes being shogun (military leader, the day to day ruler of Japan, as opposed to the Emperor, who reigned but did not rule.)  As part of the flip, the female shogun had a male harem named the Ooku (“Inner Chambers.”)

Ooku 10

In Volume 10, Aonuma and the other students of Western medicine in the Ooku make great strides in devising a way to immunize boys against the redface pox.  Unfortunately, their method will still kill three in one hundred from the pox itself, and one of those three is the son of a powerful lord who in grief turns into an anti-vaxxer.  Meanwhile, the modernizing shogun and her reasonable chamberlain who have made the research possible find themselves blamed for a series of disasters, including famine and a volcanic eruption.  When the shogun’s health takes a turn for the worse, Aonuma is finally allowed to diagnose her, but he discovers that her “disease” is not what the court physicians have said, and he has no cure for arsenic.  Disaster ensues.

As is often the case in this series, hope is followed by tragedy and injustice.  There is a brutal rape in this volume, though the actual act is off-page during a flashback sequence.

Ooku 11

Volume 11 opens with the first male shogun in a century and a half, Ienari.  But his mother Harusada makes it clear that he’s a puppet, and all power is to remain with her.  Study of Western science is now forbidden, as are many other fun and useful things under “frugality” laws.  Which would be less hated, perhaps, if the shogun’s court were not still spending money like water.  After decades of succession crises because of low-fertility shogun women and a high mortality rate among their few children, Ienari is a problem because of his unusual potency, siring children left and right.

Interestingly, the changed circumstances make Ienari far more sympathetic than he is generally portrayed in Japanese historical dramas.  Danger stalks the halls of the Shogun’s palace as more people become fully aware of just what kind of person Harusada is and what she’s been up to.

However, the few remaining men who had access to the Inner Chamber’s records and Western medical training at last learn of a safer vaccination method–the redface pox could be eradicated, if they were allowed to do so!

It looks like Volume 12 will be the conclusion of this series (and I am hoping it will not take the “and all the changes in history were whitewashed away by a government conspiracy so as far as you know this actually happened” line.)

As before, excellent art and effective writing.  Some scenes do go for more melodrama than is necessary.  Be aware that the “Explicit Content” label is there for good reason–this is not a series for children.

Recommended to alternate history fans and those looking for more mature stories in their manga.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

Movie Review: The Miracle Rider

It is 1935 in the Panhandle area of Texas, home to the Ravenhead Tribe Indian Reservation.    The Ravenheads are a peaceful, hardworking tribe.  Sadly, their land is secretly situated on top of the largest deposit of X-94, an ore with tremendous explosive power, in the world.  Somehow, a white man named Zaroff (Charles Middleton) has learned of this and has been secretly mining the X-94 while posing as an oil driller and ranch owner.

The Miracle Rider

If Zaroff could just get the Ravenheads out of the reservation, he could move in openly and become the most powerful mine owner in the world.  To this end, Zaroff tries to scare the natives off their land with a string of bizarre incidents attributed to the evil Firebird spirit.  He is aided in this by one of the tribe, Longboat (Bob Kortman).  It seems that Longboat is not full-blooded, and if this secret was known to the tribe, he could never become chief.

Good thing Texas Ranger Tom Morgan (Tom Mix) is on the case!  A long-time friend of the Ravenheads since his father died protecting them from squatters, Tom is swift to realize that the events are not supernatural.  He acts to protect Ruth (Joan Gale), a murdered chief’s daughter, while investigating the conspiracy.

Early on, Tom is misled into believing Emil Janss (Edward Hern),  a merchant who wants to sell some unprofitable land he owns to the government for a new reservation, is behind the attacks and killings.  Can Tom unravel the tangled web to reveal the truth before the Ravenheads lose their homes?

The Miracle Rider is a fifteen-part movie serial produced by Mascot Pictures in 1935.  It was the last film work by Tom Mix.  While he was still a big box office draw, as he had been in the silent era, Mr. Mix was getting long in the tooth and had nagging injuries that slowed him down.  He still did many of his own stunts in this serial, but you can see him moving stiffly from time to time.

While there are science fiction elements in the story, they swiftly fade out.  The solar-powered heat ray is never used again after the first installment, and the Firebird, a radio-controlled ultralight aircraft, is destroyed only a few episodes in.  That leaves only X-94 itself, and the explosions never live up to the scale the dialogue says they should.  On the other hand, the Western genre bits stay all the way, and there’s plenty of exciting horse chases, gunplay and fistfights.

Typical of its era, the treatment of Native Americans is dubious at best.  The first installment opens with American heroes Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody trying to honor Indian territory, only to have greedier white men go and steal the land anyway, leading to war.  Tom Morgan’s father is cast in this mold as well, and it’s clear that Tom is meant to be the spiritual successor of the other heroes.

Tom and the good guy Indian agent Christopher Adams (Edward Earle) behave as paternalistic protectors of the Ravenheads, who are superstitious, easily panicked and speak (except Ruth) in a vaudeville “Injun” dialect.  Naturally, all of the Ravenheads with major speaking parts are played by white actors in makeup.  Longboat is referred to as a “half-breed” and this is the major motivation for his villainous actions.

But still, there’s some rollicking action, a bunch of plot twists, and a couple of good cliffhangers (even if a couple have resolutions that are obvious cheats.)  The antics of Tony, Tom’s preternaturally intelligent horse, are a hoot.  Watch it with your kids, but prepare for some rather pointed questions afterwards.

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