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:

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  (On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Elfstones of Shanarra

Long ago, before even the rise of the old humans, the good and evil faerie creatures had a great war.  At the end of it, the evil beings who would go down in legend as “demons” were sealed away in a dark dimension by the Forbidding, a barrier maintained by the tree known as the Ellcrys.  The elves have long protected the Ellcrys, through the rise of the humans, the Great Wars, the creation of the new human races, and even through the reign of the Warlock King.

But now the Ellcrys is dying, and the Forbidding with it.  Already a few demons have slipped out, and eons of imprisonment stewing in their own hatred have done nothing to improve their temperaments.  One of their first acts is to slay all the Chosen, those elves who could be used to replant the Ellcrys and restore the Forbidding.

The last Druid, Allanon, seeks out trainee healer Wil Ohmsford and renegade elf teacher Amberle to go on a perilous quest to find the mysterious Bloodfire while he and the elves fight a delaying action against the demon hordes.   Wil and Amberle gain and lose companions along the way, while Ander Elessedil, second son of the Elf King, must muster the armies of elves and their allies on the homefront.

This was the second of the Shannara books, and generally considered an improvement over the first as it moved away from the Tolkein-derivative plot and themes of the previous volume.  It’s worth noting that the Shannara books were the first fantasy doorstoppers to become big hits when first written–The Lord of the Rings took quite a while to find acceptance.  As such, they opened the floodgates for other weighty tomes of magic and monsters.

Wil and Amberle are reluctant heroes, to say the least.  They have careers they’re much more interested in than gallivanting off to save the world.  Wil suspects that Allanon isn’t being entirely truthful about the nature of the quest (which is correct) and Amberle has her own reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, although we don’t find out the full details until nearly the end.

Allanon is fallible; he has lived too long by secrecy, and feels compelled not to reveal certain details, which means that those who’ve been burned by him before do not trust him.  He is overconfident in his ability to predict the enemy’s moves, and misses an important clue that hampers everything the good guys try to accomplish.  And he realizes very late in the story that all the secrets needed to fight future problems will die with him if he doesn’t find an apprentice soon.

Ander is a more traditional heroic figure, who steps out of his brother’s shadow to become a competent and charismatic leader when his country needs him.

Female roles are a bit iffy; while the Roma-like Rovers have aspersions cast on them for treating their women as servants at best, there are no women in the councils of the elf kingdom  or any other place shown–no woman rises above the post of innkeeper in this story.   Other than Amberle, the only prominent woman is Eretria, a fiery Rover girl who takes a fancy to Wil, and is primarily characterized by her attempting to get him to reciprocate.  Wil has to be repeatedly reminded to consult Amberle on plans he makes for both of them.

This book is also the one that started the Shannara tradition of bittersweet endings; Mr. Brooks has no hesitation about killing off major characters.

Overall, a good epic fantasy novel slightly hindered by the author’s then blind spot about female characters.  Worth looking up if you somehow missed the Shannara series in the past.

Manga Review: The Twin Knights

Manga Review: The Twin Knights by Osamu Tezuka

This is a sequel to the classic Osamu Tezuka work Princess Knight (“Ribon no Kishi” or “The Ribbon Knight” in Japanese), about Sapphire, a princess raised as a boy due to strange circumstances.  Queen Sapphire is now married and gives birth to twins, Prince Daisy and Princess Violetta.  There’s a question of succession, as the inheritance rules were changed to allow women to ascend the throne of Silverland, but don’t account for twins.

The Twin Knights

The equivalent of a coin flip makes Prince Daisy the heir apparent, which enrages the Duke and Duchess of Dahlia.  They kidnap the prince and have him abandoned in the Forest of Slobb.  To calm the people while the search for the missing prince is ongoing,  Queen Sapphire and her husband regretfully decide to have Violetta disguised as her brother on alternate days.

Years pass, and when Violetta is in her teens, things reach a crisis point.  She must leave the castle to seek out her brother, who, yes, is still alive.  Many perils await, and not all who begin this fairy tale will be alive at the end of it.

Osamu Tezuka innovated in many areas of Japanese comics, and Princess Knight was one of the first shoujo manga (girls’ comics) in Japan; certainly it’s the first one anyone still remembers.  This sequel was also written in the 1950s  It shares the same simple but dynamic art style and attitudes towards gender issues that were progressive for the time it was written but seem outdated today.

There’s a lot of exciting action, some comedy, and a bit of confusion involving mistaken identities.  Princess Violetta ends up impersonating Prince Daisy,  impersonating himself!   Even though Queen Sapphire is much more ladylike now, she hasn’t forgotten her sword skills.  In the fairy tale tradition, there are several deaths, with the evil tending to die gruesomely (but tastefully–this isn’t a gorefest.)

An important supporting character is Emerald, Queen of the Gypsies.  Although she and her people are depicted sympathetically (and Emerald is heroic when her temper doesn’t get the better of her), it’s still pretty stereotypical.  Parents may want to talk to their children about the real-life Roma and the prejudice against them.

I’d especially recommend this volume (and the series it’s a sequel to) to fans of the Disney princesses, as Tezuka took a lot of his early inspiration from the Walt Disney style.

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