Dutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionally...moreDutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionally interjects a Dutch word, it's explained in context.) The Goodreads description reproduces his own blurb for this e-story, so it's a fairly accurate explanation of the premise (with a caveat explained below), and the place of the short stories in the Amsterdam Assassin series. Nobody officially recommended this tale to me, but my Goodreads friend Nancy recently gave it four stars (so some reader responses are much more favorable than mine!). While her review tweaked my curiosity, I had doubts whether I'd like this as much as she did; but the fact that it's free on Kindle, and takes very little investment of time, convinced me to give it a try. (And trying something you don't ultimately like isn't necessarily a waste of time; it provides exposure to the unfamiliar, and a perspective on the reading that you do like.) On the surface, one could argue that it should be up my alley; after all, while I haven't read very much assassin fiction, I do think that assassins can make interesting protagonists, and strong, tough female protagonists appeal to me a lot more than timorous and emotionally frail ones (Katla's credentials are impeccable in that area). A big part of the low rating comes from a fundamental lack of sympathy with Halm's literary vision, which he explains in one part of the additional material promoting the series that's included with this story.
Halm writes (speaking of himself in the third person) that he: "...always enjoyed stories about assassins, but his opinion on assassins differed from the books he read. Since most fictional assassins are antagonists, they're often warped individuals... . However, Martin has come across mercenaries (basically the same field) who are pretty regular people. Sure, their view of the world differs from ordinary citizens, but they're not "warped." This made him want to write about an assassin who has no deep-seated frustration or abused childhood, but who just realized that killing was what she was good at and who had the appropriate world view and lack of conscience to pull it off." The result is Katla, who'll willingly kill any fellow human for enough money. To be sure, her mark here, as she observes at one point, is essentially as conscienceless as she is, and has blood on his own hands shed by criminal negligence. But while that matters to her client, as she also points out explicitly, it doesn't to her; all that matters is the fee. If she was paid the same amount to whack Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, we sense that she'd have no problem with the idea. Some obvious rejoinders to Halm's statement suggest themselves.
First, the fictional assassins I've read about are not necessarily warped people, in a moral sense. Some, like Karin Kaufman's Jane Piper in All Souls: A Gatehouse Thriller or Mark Cooper's British spy Leah Bennett Hargraves (whose missions often involve covert assassinations) take on a vocation of extralegal killing because they believe it's a legitimate way of fighting evil. Similarly, B. R. Stateham's Smitty (Call Me Smitty), though he's a very dark and damaged soul, is very scrupulous about who he kills; he's an avenger who smites the wicked, not the innocent. We can differ with their method, but we can respect and support their motive. Other fictional assassins, like John Sandford's Clara Rinker, ARE in their trade for the money, and may not have such strict scruples over who they kill to get it, or to protect themselves. But even some of these characters are not totally without conscience; like the rest of us, they're compounds of goodness and evil, images of God with a fallen nature, and their interest as characters derives from how they deal with the contending impulses of their nature in a very extreme life situation, and the interplay of light and dark, and shades of grey, that this creates. Clara, for instance, draws some lines in the sand that she won't cross, and there is real good in her that shows itself at times; she's a very three-dimensional character who fascinates because she's human and unpredictable. (And like real people, fictional assassins may be on a moral journey, with a story arc that may not end where it starts; that possibility also excites interest.) In contrast, Katla comes across as pretty much flat and one-dimensional, a morally lobotomized incarnation of selfish egoism without any empathy for others, and nothing to evoke empathy for her --a cunning predator, like the vampires of the classic Dracula tradition, but like them not really a dynamic or round character. And we feel innately that she's journeying nowhere different from where she is; that she made her last moral choice when she picked her profession, and now ticks on like a clock. (To be fair, Halm may develop the character more deeply in the novels, and introduce more complexity in her moral thinking. But this is how she comes across to me here.) This doesn't, for me, create a very interesting protagonist, nor one that I can like, care much about, or get behind and root for. (I'd also beg to differ with Halm about whether mercenaries and assassins are in the same field, but that doesn't affect this review.)
For me, there were also considerable problems with the execution here (no pun intended!) To my mind, while technical manuals and how-to books are about technology and processes, good fiction is about people. This story compliments its lack of a round and dynamic human element with a heavy concentration on technology and processes, explained in great detail. There's some justification for explaining how Katla can get in and out of a locked room and re-lock it from the inside. (This differs from traditional mystery genre "locked room" puzzles, though, in that in these it's obvious that a murder was committed; whereas Katla's trademark method is to make her killings look accidental.) But we also learn how to solve the problem of making a functional spud-gun/grappling hook light enough for a utility belt (what, you weren't burning with curiosity about that?), how locks and lock-picks work, and hear a lot about computer hardware, etc. etc. This pads the story to a decent word count, and some readers might be fascinated with it. (I wasn't.) IMO, Halm's logic failed seriously in his handling of the murder method. (view spoiler)[Katla drowned the victim in his bathtub; but much was made of the need to do this gradually, by lifting him in and out, with reference to the real-life "Brides in the Bathtub" case solved by early 20th-century pathologist Spilsbury; "they died uncommonly quick... in normal drownings, the victim will struggle for life and so ingest much more water." Well, I'm not familiar with that case; but a drowning victim struggling for life in a bathtub, unlike a river or pond, could readily stand up in it. An actual drowning victim in that case would have to be unconscious --as Katla claims would be caused by water hitting the vagus nerve in the nose!-- and so WOULD drown fairly quickly, rather than rising and falling in and out of the water like a yo-yo. And the stressed need to avoid marks on the body was incongruous; a bump on the head would plausibly explain how the deceased could have fallen underwater and knocked himself out. Were I an M.E., I'd be curious about how someone with no marks of injury on him wound up on his back with his head underwater in a bathtub to start with. (hide spoiler)] At one point, Katla "took a pen" to write something --in a bathroom, where people don't usually store writing materials, and when Halm has established that she's wearing a one-piece bathing suit, which presumably doesn't have pockets. Usually very exhaustive at explaining every physical detail, the author is quite cagey about where this pen comes from; since this isn't urban fantasy, she probably doesn't conjure it. Finally, when she's making her escape, she finds a potential witness or two blocking the egress passageway, and is resolved not to wait "in the cold and wet" for even a few minutes until they leave; instead, she's thinking about disabling or killing them. This is spectacularly unrealistic, because she's gone to great pains to ensure that the crime scene presents nothing untoward that would suggest to anyone that anything unusual went on, besides an unfortunate accident. It's completely out of the character the author has already established to imagine that she'd even consider throwing all that effort away to spare herself some minor discomfort --to disguise a kill, this woman would be quite content to wait for hours under a lot more discomfort than this, and not bat on eye. (Halm is apparently trying to let us know that she's ruthless --uh, DUH, we already kind of got that!-- but did so at the expense of credible character consistency.)
On the plus side, this story has almost no bad language at all, and no lewd sexual content, even in situations that some writers would milk for every drop of titillation they could get; Halm is a very clean writer in this respect. (He doesn't present Katla as a super-sexualized bimbo, either.) It's also a pretty quick read; I finished it in one sitting. But those points didn't redeem it for me, and I don't have any interest in exploring any more of the series.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Note, July 6, 2014: I edited this just now to correct a minor typo.
Being a little-known author myself, I have a lively appreciation of how difficult i...moreNote, July 6, 2014: I edited this just now to correct a minor typo.
Being a little-known author myself, I have a lively appreciation of how difficult it is to get one's work noticed in a glutted book market without a major advertising budget; and I have a soft spot for New Pulp. So, when I stumbled on Goodreads author Percival Constantine's free e-book versions of a couple of his action-adventure novels, I thought there was a good enough chance I'd like them to risk investing a bit of time, and hopefully be able to give him a good review. (I always do this with the intention that if I like the book, I'll buy the print copy --which, in this case, I'll be doing.) While this novel is nowhere near four or five star territory, it kept my interest and earned its three.
As the Goodreads description indicates, our protagonist here is a female archaeologist. Constantine's idea of archaeology, though, is definitely of the Indiana Jones variety, and Elisa Hill proved to be an action heroine type, very much a literary equivalent of Lady Lara Croft or TV's Sydney Fox in that respect. (Given that I own both Tomb Raider movies on VHS and never missed an episode of Relic Hunter if I could help it, it's not hard to guess that I found her an appealing character type!) This is the series opener for the author's Myth Hunter series, the titular hunter(s) being involved in tracking down both archaeological and supernatural mysteries. (While I didn't classify this as supernatural fiction, it does have a significant supernatural element, in the person of one character.) In this particular book, though, what's being investigated isn't really "ancient myth," but 19th and early 20th-century occultist myth: the idea of an ancient continent (known as Lemuria, or Mu) in the area of what is now the Pacific Ocean. In particular, it draws on the claims of Col. James Churchward (1851-1936), who asserted that as a British officer in India, he was shown secret tablets in an (unidentified) temple, written in the "Naga-Mayan" language --which, as far as actual philologists know, doesn't exist; he claimed that only three people in India could read it, but one of them taught him-- that purported to show that 50,000 years B.P., Mu had a civilization more highly advanced than that of his own day, and that all the world's later civilizations developed from their scattered colonies after the motherland continent sank beneath the Pacific in a great cataclysm. (As a kid, I read some of Churchward's books, which belonged to a boarder we had who was into the weird; even then, I could tell that they were off the wall, but reading this book brought back memories.) Constantine takes off on this premise to build his plot here. Since the whole Mu-Lemuria theory is pretty well discredited by both geology and serious archaeology, philology, etc,, this requires some suspension of disbelief. But if you can muster this, Constantine has done his homework in the Churchward canon, and also brings in another real-world tie-in, Japan's "Yonaguni Monument," massive offshore stone formations under the Pacific which some maintain are man-made (though that isn't clearly evident nor widely accepted by archaeologists). He also has done some research into the Japanese folklore of the kitsune, Japanese for fox; older foxes were believed to have power to take human form, and were messengers for the spirit world. (Constantine --who's a resident of Japan-- has reinterpreted this mythos somewhat, but he clearly hasn't forgotten his basis.)
This is not a deep or highly textured read; it's straight pulp action-adventure, with a simple, direct prose style and a full-throttle narrative drive that makes for a quick read. None of the characters are very deeply developed, including Elisa, and while the author takes us to some exotic locales, he doesn't really evoke much sense of place in any of them. (We also aren't even given any clue where "Burroughs University," where Elisa teaches, is located, except that it's in the U.S.) Archaeological finds here tend to be too easy for believability; no physical digging or excavation nor much textual or other research to identify sites is required. Where action scenes are concerned, Elisa's no slouch in the kick-butt department; she's an ethically sensitive person who doesn't fight unless she's attacked, but if she is, she fights to kill without batting an eye. However, her aversion to guns and preference for edged weapons, in a modern-day context, isn't explained credibly enough to seem realistic. We can say the same for the tendency to use swords rather than guns on the part of the minions of the "Order" (think, the Illuminati on steroids :-) ), which will probably be the series' staple evil entity. Also, some of the jumps characters make in the action scenes, with no running start, are implausible, as is the idea that a character could stop a bullet by slicing it with a sword. And I'm not sure a fox could inflict all the physical mayhem Asami does here (granted, we're told she's a very large fox, but how large isn't specified). It's also clear that Constantine doesn't know much about how academic sabbaticals are scheduled.
For all that, this is a page-turner with "brain-candy" appeal, and the good characters are engaging. I was hooked enough to read it all the way through just to see how it would turn out; and while it's more plot-driven than character-driven, Elisa's relationship to Lucas, and to Asami, have enough complexity and ambiguity to be interesting. There's no sex here; there's some bad and coarse language, including f-words, but it's not pervasive and mostly comes from characters you'd fairly expect to be potty-mouthed. The violent episodes can be lethal and gory, but they're over quickly and not dwelt on. Bottom line: this won't be epochal and groundbreaking even in the world of pulp adventure fiction; but it's workmanlike entertainment (and pretty well proof-read, too, despite one mangled sentence that slipped through). I'd be up for reading the sequel sometime, and am interested in checking out the author's other freebie as well. (less)
Most people who've read very much at all about World War II are aware that Germany, as well as the U.S., had an active atom bomb development program....moreMost people who've read very much at all about World War II are aware that Germany, as well as the U.S., had an active atom bomb development program. Not many, however, are aware (I wasn't, before encountering this book!) that Japan did too --and indeed, that information was only declassified relatively recently. First novelist Lee draws on this new historical information to create a riveting espionage thriller --and the adjective "high-octane" in the description, for once, isn't just hype!
After a blood-drenched prologue set in Tokyo in 1937, our story focuses on Mina Sakamoto (b. Nov. 6, 1927 --so she's recently turned 14 at the time of Pearl Harbor). Born and raised in multi-ethnic Honolulu, she's a Nisei, an American-born offspring of Japanese immigrants, who's largely Americanized and sees herself as American. The smart and precocious daughter of a medical doctor, she's been unofficially trained to function as a practical nurse; she's also good at languages (in that setting, a pretty crucial social skill) and something of a tomboy, good at roller skating and hunting rabbits with a slingshot. This background is going to come in handy, because the events of Pearl Harbor will propel her into becoming, before she's 15, a full-fledged field agent of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services --nicknamed "Oh So Secret" by its initiates), the World War II-era predecessor of the CIA. ("Coral Hare" is her coded radio callsign.) Out of 64 chapters, the last 50 focus on the spring and summer of 1945, when the now 17-year-old goes up against Japan's A-bomb program.
Despite the teen protagonist, this is definitely NOT YA fiction as such (though some teen readers would eat it up with a spoon). There's no sex (except for a rape scene, but we thankfully don't get a graphic description of the whole incident); while it's noted in passing that Mina wants to marry and have kids one day, that's an aspect of her life that's understandably on hold in the face of other priorities (like staying alive). But there is a LOT of violence. I'd say that 80-90% of the book consists of fighting action, in which absolutely no punches are pulled by the combatants or the author, or of horrific descriptions of the effects of bomb blasts, both conventional and atomic, on human beings; the mayhem is very graphic, gory and grisly. There's also a noticeable amount of bad language; much of it is of the d, h, and s-word variety, but there's some actual profanity too, and I counted eight uses of the f-word. (For the speech of U.S. soldiers, that's arguably not unrealistic --but would Japanese-language speakers have been very apt to use it, especially before the U.S. occupation?)
The author's obviously extensive research and historical accuracy is a significant strong point for this novel; but he does a good job of not shoe-horning all of his research into story-slowing info-dumps. This is accomplished partly by the use of footnotes, which the reader can read or ignore, a device that works well here, IMO (I personally wasn't interested in things like the identification of models of military hardware, but World War II buffs or gun enthusiasts, for example, might be; and other notes were quite educational) and through several fascinating historical appendices, which make it clear how much real-life history (TONS!) was incorporated into the narrative, as well as added bonuses on things like real Allied female spies in the war, and an honor roll of real Japanese-Americans in the OSS. (Lee shows a clear and commendable respect for the courage and sacrifice of the "Greatest Generation," to whom the book is dedicated.) Mina's age poses some credibility problems (the biggest one, that Lee mostly ignores, being parental consent for her going off in the first place!); but a doctored birth certificate and some string-pulling help to address these, and the description of her grueling OSS training provides necessary believability for her transformation into a kick-butt warrior. Lee handles the intervening years between this and her climactic 1945 missions very adeptly. The story arc in general is constructed artfully, with personal growth on Mina's part, and a nice depiction of the relationship between her and her mentor.
For the most part, Lee handles language and diction capably; unlike some self-published works, the prose here is always clear and readable. (While there are a few typos that slipped through, it also appears to have had some conscientious effort at proofreading.) There are a few cases of sentence construction that's incorrect, and misuse of a couple of words (a character lying "prone on her back" when prone means face down, and a confusion of "flanking" with approaching from behind), isolated instances of redundant language, and sometimes details that don't ring true in the context --for instance, Mina being at a diner for two hours, and still not being done eating a hamburger. But these aren't big problems.
Mina is definitely a remarkable literary creation, who takes her place immediately in the pantheon of unforgettable characters in the pulp action tradition. She's definitely a well-drawn, round character, with an industrial-strength level of indomitable spirit and courage, and fighting prowess that's second to none. Allowing for differences in their setting and weaponry, she has enough similarity to Billy Wong's Iron Rose (at least, in Iron Bloom) to make comparison and contrast between the two girls instructive: they're both teens who've had to grow up quickly (but who yet retain touches of the teen), both super-lethal fighters with massive kill counts, and both possessed of endurance and recuperative powers that amaze observers. But while Lee is by far the better stylist, Wong actually creates the deeper and more personally appealing (to me, at least) character. Rose's motive for picking up the sword as a career is desire to protect innocents from harm. That plays into Mina's motives in her final missions here (as does patriotism), but she's originally and mainly motivated by desire for revenge. She's got good reason, and I can respect it; but she's on a darker journey than Rose's. And while Rose is bothered by killing, even when she knows it's necessary, Mina not only clearly isn't, but more darkly, she at times appears to enjoy inflicting mayhem. That makes her harder to like at a deep level.
Related to this, there's also a certain sense of missed possibilities for serious moral reflection here. Most obviously, Mina is on a mission to stop WMDs from being built and deployed --and any time you try to stop that, you're doing something constructive. But while she doesn't harm any civilians herself, she also knows about the U.S.'s mirror-image Manhattan Project (which a field operative like herself probably wouldn't have in real life) and doesn't appear to have any problem with it. She's also present for the firebombing of Tokyo, in which more civilians died than in both atom bomb attacks combined (the "justifying" excuse was that the breadwinners of the massacred families worked in defense plants --which the U.S. would have rejected out of hand if the Japanese had been able to bomb, say, Detroit for the same reason); but if it causes her to think about anything but her own survival in the situation, it's not apparent. What comes across is sort of an "us against them" mindset that can translate into "Japnese WMDs and atrocities against noncombatants = bad; U.S. WMD's and atrocities against noncombatants = good;" like the Japanese villains running the A-bomb program (who operate with the same equation, but flipped around), the impression is that anything you do to the "Enemy" is okay because they're the enemy. Certainly, that's realistic for the time and place; it's exactly the attitude that characterized most people on both sides of the war. (Mina, at least, doesn't have the racism that fueled that attitude, on both sides.) And just as certainly, tainted actions by one's co-belligerants don't justify inaction in a war against great evil. But I missed the more substantial kind of moral reflection that would have lifted this into five-star territory. True, the depictions of human suffering from both conventional and atomic bombs here certainly might inspire some of that kind of reflection in some readers; but I don't think that was Lee's direct intention. (I'd also argue that by the summer of 1945, Japan could not have won the war even if they'd built the A-bomb; and I have serious doubts that the OSS ever used torture to interrogate prisoners. We know the Germans and Japanese did --and probably the Soviets too; they certainly used it to force "confessions" in the Stalinist purge trials of the previous decade-- but apart from the ethical issues, I think U.S. intelligence realized how unreliable it is as a way of getting honest information.)
All of that said, though, whatever it isn't, this novel is a very good example of what it is: an unabashedly pulpy, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride through hell and back, with a take-no-prisoners heroine who's in a new mortal jeopardy every time you turn around, and who'll keep your heart in your mouth every minute. (Remember, this isn't a series book; there's no guarantee that our gal's going to make it home, even if we want her to!) If you're an "action junkie" (as one of my Goodreads friends describes himself) you'll for sure get your fix here, and then some. :-) This would have real possibilities for an action movie adaptation (which would definitely be rated R for violence); and if it's ever made, it's going on my to-watch list!
Added note, April 26, 2014: I almost forgot the required full disclosure: the author gave me a free review copy, just because I'd called the book "intriguing" in a comment. No guarantee of a good review was asked or given! (And yes, Mina does take a prisoner on one occasion; "take-no-prisoners" is a figure of speech. :-) )(less)
Full disclosure at the outset: I won my copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway earlier this year. Those giveaways don't require winners to give the...moreFull disclosure at the outset: I won my copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway earlier this year. Those giveaways don't require winners to give the book a favorable review, or even to write a review at all; but I review almost everything I read, and I felt that courtesy to the author required a reasonably prompt one, so I put the book high in my TBR pile. Courtesy to other readers, of course, requires that the review be an honest one --and I honestly did like the book, though not as much as I'd hoped to, and could have if the execution of the concept had been handled differently.
Wayne Reinagel is obviously an avid fan of the action-adventure and science fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, in books and film, and of the classic pulp-era heroes in particular. The Pulp Heroes trilogy is his affectionate homage to this body of material (this novel isn't the first of the three to be written, but it's the earliest in terms of the trilogy's internal chronology). His titular "Pulp Heroes" are take-offs on three staple series characters of the 1930s American pulp magazines, with the names changed (not to "protect the innocent," but to avoid being sued under the Mickey Mouse Protection Act): Doc Titan is based on Lester Dent's Doc Savage, I think the Darkness is based on the Shadow, and I'm not sure of the model of the Scorpion. I haven't yet read any in the original 30s pulp of this type --I know, shame on me!-- and I suspect this book and the trilogy as a whole would appeal more to readers who have. (Indeed, an acquaintance with a broad swath of past and contemporary literature and film would be useful to the reader, because allusions and direct borrowings abound.) But as my three-star rating indicates, it can be appreciated to some degree even without that background. All three of these characters have their cast of sidekicks and friends, also apparently renamed versions of originals taken from the model writings. And Dr. Hunan Sun, with his long fingernails and mustachios, brings to mind Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu.
The Goodreads description gives the impression that the plot here is much tighter than it actually is --implying that a web of separate plot strands are masterfully woven into some generation-spanning tapestry. (Would that this were the case!) Actually, the strands are mostly a miscellaneous jumble, usually related only by the interactions and participation of some of the same characters --not, for the most part, by actually fitting together and complementing one another. (And some strands don't intersect at all with the others, while others simply peter out with no resolution.) Our three main heroes aren't working together, though they cross paths at times. Most of the action takes place in the autumn of 1938, with another large bloc of material set in 1868, primarily in Cairo, Egypt; but there are scenes from a wide range of times and locales in the 19th and early 20th century, presented in a completely non-chronological framework that often seems arbitrary and pointless, and the ending, IMO, is rather anti-climactic and lame. Reinagel was clearly determined to bring in tie-ins to as many 19th and early 20th-century fictional, cinematic, literary and historical figures as he could, as well as figures from modern books and films set in those periods, sometimes by giving them cameo or (literally) walk-by roles, or family/friend connections to other characters. In smaller doses, this kind of thing can lend a novel or story resonance, or be amusing. Here, it was so overdone that, to me, it became a ridiculous negative. (For instance, Doc Titan, Churchill, Harry Truman, and Adolf Hitler all together in the same foxhole in World War I? Seriously?) Often, the author posits that past authors were relating true events, but not always relating them accurately; hence, his takes on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and on Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, are significantly different from the originals, in ways that won't please readers (like me) who prefer greater fidelity to the originals if modern authors are going to use them. (Though in fairness to Reinagel, some of his reinterpretation apparently comes from earlier pastiches by Philip Jose Farmer, who's mentioned in his appended bibliography of "References and Inspirations" and who has a cameo appearance in the book.) Some characters with super-human abilities were hard to relate to (though that's just me). At times the action was too over the top to be believable, some plot elements weren't credible, and there was a tendency towards awkward writing, repetition, clumsy word choices, telling rather than showing, dialogue that seems written for effect rather than realism in the situation, and a kind of cheesy flavor (if that makes sense). Of course, I don't know how much of this is from lack of skill on the author's part, and how much is actually skillful imitation of the style of his models. If it's the latter, it evokes the observation that there's a fine line between homage and parody, and creates the false impression that bad writing is an essential hallmark of pulp literature (it isn't). I also had a problem with the longevity of some characters. Okay, the long lifespans in Dr. Sun's family were explained as the result of his experiments in alchemy, etc. But it's not plausible for characters like Capt. Nemo, the Holmes brothers and Dr. Jekyll to be alive and as active, in places in this book, at the ages they would have had to be.
However, on the plus side, a number of the individual scenes are very vivid, fascinating and emotionally compelling. Yes, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, unfortunately; but the strength of many of the parts kept me reading. Some of the characterizations are quite good. Liking action heroines as much as I do, I appreciated some of the female characters here (and if they're modeled on pulp-era originals, I'd like to read some of those writings!) While I caught some historical errors and anachronisms, it turns out that Reinagel's use of actual history, in places where I could check, is usually sound; I learned things I didn't know about naval action in the Falkland Islands in World War I (complete news to me!), and about Sir Ernest Shackleton's last Antarctic expedition in 1914-16. The humorous banter came across as overdone at times, but some of the lines there, and other bits of comic relief, were genuinely hilarious. Personally, I didn't feel that the treatment of minority characters was racially insensitive just because there happened to be an Asian villain and villainess (it's clearly brought out that Western treatment of China in the imperialist era was far from benevolent). In keeping with 30s pulp tradition, there's no explicit sex here and very little implied sex, not much bad language (and what there is isn't very rough), and the violence isn't too gory. (The Jack the Ripper vignette is the worst on that score.)
My impression from this book is that if you've read one book of the trilogy (and at 566 pages, it's a thick, time-consuming read), you've probably read them all. I'm content to stop with one, though I did add the author's stand-alone The Hunter Island Adventure to my to-read shelf (that focuses on his distaff characters, such as Doc's cousin Pam). But this has whetted my curiosity about some of the actual pulp-era fiction of writers like Dent (which was already piqued by the pulp-fiction Goodreads group I belong to), and I hope to explore that more in time! Readers of this novel might also appreciate Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, Tim Byrd's modern-day take on the Doc Savage canon.(less)
Given that this book is ultra-new to the Goodreads database, you might ask, how did I read it so quickly? The answer, of course, is that I was privile...moreGiven that this book is ultra-new to the Goodreads database, you might ask, how did I read it so quickly? The answer, of course, is that I was privileged to beta-read it earlier this year (ignore the Jan. 1 date, which is a Goodreads glitch!), as I was the preceding volume that opens the series, Mareritt. (My review of the latter book is here: www.goodreads.com/review/show/635693987 . Many of the comments there apply to this book as well, since they have the same main characters, style and flavor.) Yes, I'm a fanboy of the author, and of this series; but she earned my approbation, and keeps it, by consistently delivering high-quality, well-crafted writing!
A crucial requirement for most series fiction is a main character(s) who we as readers genuinely like and want to continue to spend time with. For me, Tobias and Sam admirably fit that bill. Another requirement is a plot that has the essential series characteristics --here, awareness of spiritual and moral reality in the light of Christian faith, and a dance of interaction between the natural and supernatural, the human and the divine, the living and the dead. (What, you say that's impossible, the dead can't interact with the living? Well, you haven't chatted with my perfectly mundane neighbor about her matter-of-fact observations in her "haunted" house....) At the same time, it needs to be distinct enough not to clone what went before. Vingede successfully walks that tightrope, too. We have a compelling mystery here, that kept me as riveted as the first book did.
To fit the series into its literary context, Tobias can be seen as an heir to the "occult detective" tradition, following in the footsteps of figures like Flaxman Low, Carnacki, or John Thunstone (though he's a distinct individual in his own right). It also fits into the "urban (or, at least, suburban) fantasy" subgenre, with the regular incursion of the invisible world into the normal setting of modern life in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. It's on the more cerebral end of both spectrums, though, in that Tobias isn't the kick-butt type (he prefers to keep his gun locked in the safe rather than carry it, and is more of a thinker than a fighter). So we don't have any violence here; and the horrific element comes, not from the incursion of the supernatural into the natural, but from dragging into the light the dark horrors of human depravity and what some humans are capable of doing to others. There's a component of (disturbed) sexuality to the mystery here, and some realistic (wholesome) sexual tension between our lead characters; but no sex as such; and the only bad language is an s-word that Tobias lets slip once, and that I know the author agonized over. (But as Surak of Vulcan would probably have observed, "The cause was sufficient." :-) ). So it can be unabashedly recommended to both teen and older supernatural fiction fans who like some depth to their reading. Bottom line: a fine continuation to a promising series!(less)
Because of their line of work, the owners of Hearthside Books in Bluefield, WV are frequently favored by publishers with advance review copies of fort...moreBecause of their line of work, the owners of Hearthside Books in Bluefield, WV are frequently favored by publishers with advance review copies of forthcoming books. Last month, they offered some of these free, for a limited time, to their customers; and this was the one I snapped up, intrigued by a glowing review from another member of the Book Review Exchange group. (She didn't steer me wrong!) The nearly month-long time it took me to read this isn't really indicative; it's a brisk-paced tale with easily flowing prose that would be a quick read for most folks. I put it aside at midpoint for some time only because I was doing some beta reading for a friend; otherwise I gave it priority, since it was an ARC (though I didn't even have to agree to review it in order to get it) --and I was very glad to, since it's the sort of book you open eagerly every time you read in it!
Technically, this could be called fantasy, since it's set in an alternate England; I classified it as what I call "supernatural fiction" because --aside from the Problem and its ramifications-- the setting is otherwise so much like the real world. (For much of the book, I thought it might be supposed to be our world, decades into the future, but a reference to capital punishment existing in England at the time of a 50-year-old murder precluded that idea.) But the ramifications of the Problem are big. For half a century, ghostly apparitions have become VERY common in England (it's not said whether that's true in the rest of the world), and universally recognized as real. The ghostly Visitors aren't always malevolent; but they can be, and their touch can kill. Curfews keep people indoors at night, iron and other charms are commonly used to ward buildings and people, and agencies that deal with apparitions are respected and profitable. But though most agencies are run and supervised by adults, only some children gifted with the sensitivity can see, hear or sense ghosts directly; and they lose this sensitivity as they become adults. So the field operatives of these agencies are tweens and teens; well-paid for their work, but subject to lethal danger all the same. Lockwood and Co. is atypical in not having adult supervisors; the teen owner and his two associates are on their own.
This brings us to one point that's admittedly unrealistic. I don't mean the idea that society would countenance putting minors in harm's way; if that's what it took to handle something like the Problem, politicians and pundits who now wax eloquent about protecting children and the merits of child labor laws would hesitate about one nanosecond (if that). But it's not likely that they'd tolerate three teens living together on their own and running their own business. True, Lockwood's an orphan. But he'd been "in care" at one time, and I can't see them voluntarily letting him out of it. Lucy's a runaway, though not without some reason; and the fact that her Talent made her the main breadwinner for her mother and sister would give the former a big incentive to want her back. (Her cavalier abandonment of her family is the one blot on her character for me; I can see leaving, but not just abandoning without a goodbye or any further thought or contact.) We don't know where George's parents are; they're not even mentioned. This is Stroud's way of freeing his teen characters to act on their own without adult guidance, and let his teen readers vicariously fantasize about being free to have their own adventures and show the mettle they think ((sometimes with a basis!) that they have, even if adults don't agree. It's certainly a conceptual flaw in the premise, though. (Like Ilona Andrews, he also doesn't deal with the massive revolutionary social and ideological implications that a cultural admission that the supernatural is real would have.) If I could deduct half stars for that, I suppose it would be fair to. But I rounded up without batting an eye, because this was a great read.
With its teen characters, this is marketed as a YA novel. In keeping with that, it has no sex, hardly any bad language, and no wallowing in ultra-grisly or gross violence (though the feeling of danger is very real). But it's not in any sense a dumbed-down or pablum read; it's a quality work, which can easily command the appreciation of adult readers. Stroud delivers a well-constructed plot, excellently drawn main characters whom you readily like (with the single caveat above) and root for, and a style that's about as pitch-perfect as one could ask for. The tone is mostly serious, and the author is one of the best I've read at evoking a menacing Gothic atmosphere in the right places. (This is one of the great haunted house yarns of literature, an instant classic in that respect; if you're a buff of that type of thing, you owe it to yourself to "visit" Combe Carey Hall --vicariously, with the light on.) But he also knows when to insert a light leavening of humor, and the interactions of his three teens are as real-seeming as they come. Lucy has a great narrative voice, and I'd classify her as an action heroine, given how she handles herself here. Intensely romance-allergic readers (yes, Mike, this means you! :-) ) can take note that there's none of THAT here --though I could imagine Lucy and Lockwood as a couple in a few years. And Lockwood's a smart, resourceful, capable hero, in the psychic detective mold.
Bottom line: this is good, clean supernatural fiction, as it's meant to be! I think most readers of the genre will eat it up with a spoon.(less)
I've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a...moreI've classified this book on my "Christian life and thought" shelf, which is one of my nonfiction shelves. Technically, one might argue that this is a work of fiction, a made-up narrative that uses the device of a dream vision to supposedly describe places to which no earth-bound human has ever been. But here, as with some of Hawthorne's short stories/essays, the fiction is so message-driven that any dividing line separating it from an essay is thin indeed. It's very much a narrative about ideas, and the fictional framework is just a vivid stage for these, with a few props, and the use of dramatic dialogue; here (unlike in his Chronicles of Narnia series or the Space Trilogy) Lewis' didactic purpose so overwhelms the story that it's not fair to evaluate it as fiction.
A professor of medieval literature, Lewis was quite familiar with Dante's The Divine Comedy. I am not; but I can recognize the conceptual similarity from general descriptions of the latter. Here too, we have a journey that encompasses Heaven and Hell (which, Lewis suggests, also serves as Purgatory for those who don't choose to stay there); and here, too, the narrator is furnished with a guide in the person of a famous author. (One of my Goodreads friends calls this work a "rip-off" of Dante's classic; perhaps we could more accurately call it a sort of homage, or an extended literary allusion.)
Whatever Dante's purpose was, however, Lewis clearly states in the short Preface to this work that it's not intended as a literal speculation as to what the real Heaven and Hell may be like. Rather, he uses his narrator's fictional journey as a literary conceit to make a series of major and minor points about how God relates to human beings, and how we relate to God and each other. A key message here is that God doesn't will any humans to be damned. (This would exclude the idea of Calvinist predestinarianism, despite Lewis' suggestion that the eternal perspective obviates some earthly theological distinctions such as this.) Rather, there are those who exclude themselves from Heaven, because their attitude won't let them embrace it. As the book suggests (and the Goodreads description quotes), there are two kinds of people, those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God ultimately says, in sorrow, "Thy will be done." (We could also characterize them, based on the portrayals here, as those willing to recognize a God outside themselves, and those determined to be the god and center of their own universe.) The author holds up a kind of moral mirror in which readers can see how their own attitudes and actions reflect --and it's one that reveals a lot of human self-centeredness, blaming of others for everything we refuse to take responsibility for, self-deceit and hypocrisy. The type of fictional framework, ostensibly a description of unseen realities but not intended to be taken as literally so, and the quality of the rigorous, uncompromising, spiritually-grounded ethical thought, is reminiscent of the author's (also excellent) The Screwtape Letters.
Unlike some Christian works, this one doesn't come across with the "all Christians are moral exemplars, and non-Christians are scumbags" vibe that non-Christians understandably tend to find offensive. Both God's judgment and grace, Lewis suggests, probe much more deeply into the heart and soul than surface religious affiliation; there are professed Christians (even an Anglican bishop!) in his Hell, and we hear of at least one pagan who's found his way to Heaven. However, I'd recommend this more to Christian than to non-Christian readers. That's not to say that some open-minded non-Christians wouldn't be interested in reading it, or couldn't profit from doing so. But I think Lewis presupposes some basic Christian concepts about God and the afterlife that, probably, most non-Christians would find hard to take as starting points. It's more suited, I think, as a stimulus for Christian moral and theological reflection about how we live, think, and relate to God and others. (Nonfiction Lewis works that I'd more readily recommend for non-Christian readers would include Mere Christianity, Miracles, and God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.)(less)
Full disclosure at the outset: Karin Kaufman, the author of All Souls, is a Goodreads friend of mine, and I was one of ten people to claim a free e-co...moreFull disclosure at the outset: Karin Kaufman, the author of All Souls, is a Goodreads friend of mine, and I was one of ten people to claim a free e-copy in exchange for the promise of a (good or bad) review. As yet, no print version is available, though there will be one eventually. I rarely read e-books, and never as a substitute for print; so I promised Karin that if I liked the book, I'd buy a print copy whenever it comes available. As my rating indicates, that's one sale that's now in the bag! Through much of my reading, I was ready to give it a solid three stars, and the super-strong ending commanded a fourth.
Why not five stars? Well, the premise here is that humanity is secretly menaced by a nameless worldwide society of thrill killers, who make the notorious Thugees look like philanthropists, and who are recruited from all walks of normal society, in which they blend anonymously. (Their Gatehouse adversaries call them "Sacks," short for sack of dung --though they use an earthier synonym.) The society has, by Gatehouse estimates, well over a million members, and has been around for at least 100 years, according to one passing comment; it's organized in hierarchial ranks with odd names (members of each rank supposedly don't cooperate very closely, and hate the other ranks --but they take orders from the higher ranks, and want to advance into them) and has a culture of strange behaviors, like the members taking bizarre secret names and tattooing them on their bodies, yet it has apparently no belief system or ideology except conscious embrace of evil and chaotic destruction for its own sake. They keep their existence secret from society at large, and apparently have no agenda beyond picking off as many individual innocents as they can without being exposed. The U.S. government --and possibly other governments, but our setting is the U.S.-- knows about them and preserves their secrecy, but combats them with an unofficial arm, the Gatehouse organization, which commands a small army of "hunters" who periodically assassinate individual identified Sacks (as opposed to, say, dealing with them through law enforcement and the court system) at the direction of go-betweens called "porters." (Nathan is Jane's porter.)
Early on, Jane reflects that if she stood up and shouted all of the above information in public, nobody would believe her anyway. She thinks, apparently, that the general populace might find this premise far-fetched. Readers might have the same difficulty. :-) The idea is definitely original, but it has credibility problems in spades. IMO, it's rather hard to suspend disbelief here, on a number of grounds; not the least of which is that, while many people do embrace very evil agendas, including the killing of the innocent, hardly any do so while openly and consciously telling themselves that they're doing so. The vast majority of them have to have some ideological belief system that justifies the evil by telling them that in reality it's "good," or for a greater good. I may be naive, but I don't think Sack recruitment on the basis of "embrace homicidal evil just because it's fun" would gain as many adherents as they have here. And while I see how Sacks have an interest in keeping their activities secret, I don't buy the explanation that the government tacitly agrees to cooperate in letting them do so, lest they unleash an even greater blood bath if they're forced into the open. :-( Credibility is also strained by some individual characters' motivations. (view spoiler)[Why Sack-hating Kath would join the Sacks after they killed her child, and why both Kath and the Sack who murdered Jane's sister would spare Jane in violation of Sack orders and policy, is never explained to my satisfaction. And as a parent of multiple daughters myself, I can't believe both Jane's parents would unfairly disown and reject her for "failing" to protect her sister, when any idiot can see that she would have if she could. (hide spoiler)] Granted, action-heroine fiction writers often do stretch strict credibility a bit in their premises, and sometimes the tone is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek that the reader doesn't take such lapses very seriously. Here, though, the tone is pretty serious; and where on a scale of one to ten for credibility, action heroine yarns I've read often cluster around 1-5, this one is more of a minus 75. :-(
There's also a bad language issue here, in the form of a lot of profanity and obscenity. Granted, most people do cuss some, especially under stress (as is noted here), except for those who have more thought-out reasons not to than, say, that their grandmother doesn't like it --and even these have human fallibility and impulsiveness. So there are arguable reasons for writers choosing to reflect this by explicitly quoting the bad language in dialogue; I don't have any blanket objection to this in principle, though I don't do it myself. And I don't feel that Kaufman is deliberately trying to push the envelope to influence readers to talk that way, or that she uses the device gratuitously. (Not all her characters use that kind of language, for instance; and Jane only uses the f-word when she's VERY angry and stressed, so it's a clue to her emotional state.) But for me, the cumulative amount of bad language was enough of a turn-off to cost the book a star. That's just a matter of my honest personal (subjective) aesthetic reaction, in terms of how I liked the book, not a second-guessing of the legitimacy of the author's technique. (Many readers wouldn't have any problem with it.)
All of that said, it's all the more a credit to Kaufman's ability as a writer, and the strength of this book, that she took that kind of premise and made a four-star book out of it! Her command of language, to do with it what she wants to do, is impeccable --professional, literate, with the kind of painstaking craftsmanship that makes the flow of words seem easy. A Colorado native, she sets her tale in her home state, and the neighboring parts of New Mexico and Wyoming; she's obviously at home on the ground, with real locations and a sense of place. The plotting is very taut in terms of time, compressed into just seven days --Oct. 27-Nov. 2, All Souls Day. Jane's a first-person narrator for all but the first chapter, and hers is the perfect voice for the tale. Even if I didn't always like her language, I never had any problem liking her; she's a genuinely good person in a situation that's lousy to begin with (and quickly proceeds to get a lot worse!), a woman who's kept her humanity and moral compass through a blast furnace of trials. (The other major characters are well-drawn as well.) "Gripping" doesn't begin to describe this book; it grabs you and pulls you along from the starting gate, and I'd have read it in one sitting if I could have. That's not to say it's all action; but the waiting intervals in between are as tense as harp strings. When action comes, it comes quick, realistic, and bloody, with a high body count by the time you get to the last page; Kaufman knows her guns, and she writes action scenes clearly and credibly. If you like your heroines butt-kicking, Jane won't disappoint; she's as lethal a woman as you'll ever meet in fiction --and, without any contradiction, as compassionate a person as you'd be apt to meet, too. Her colleagues tend to be as combat-skilled as she is; and some of their adversaries are extremely deadly and crafty as well. (Generally speaking, in real life I have a problem with governments violating their own laws by sponsoring programs for extrajudicial killing. But I don't hold operatives like Jane and Nathan responsible for acting in the situational context they're in. They don't make the policy; all they can do is protect the innocent and take care to kill only the guilty.) And Kaufman's plot is a roller-coaster of surprises.
Ultimately, though, this is more than a novel of slam-bang action. It becomes a serious exploration of the possibilities of moral conversion, from great evil to willing embrace of good; of guilt and atonement; of the limits of forgiveness --in short, the kinds of serious moral questions that occupy the great literature of the Western tradition; underneath the smell of gunsmoke and blood, we're in the same realm here that Hawthorne and Dostoevsky, Undset and Graham Greene have ventured before. Jane and her colleagues are secular people for the most part, and approach these questions in the secular terms of human forgiveness and atonement; but of course these are also the concerns that lie at the heart of the Christian faith. Since this is a series opener, it'll be interesting to see where Karin takes this theme in future books. And I'll find out; I'm hooked for the duration, and not one bit abashed about it!
Quick note for romance-phobic readers: there's not only no sex here, but no romance. Gatehouse doesn't encourage its operatives to marry, and doesn't allow them to stay in the organization if they conceive a child. If Jane ever decides that she wants a man in her life, I think that she deserves a good one, and that she'd be a great wife. But for now, she's content to be alone, and doesn't obsess about men and sex.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Like his Last Minute Replacement, which I reviewed earlier this year, this short story is set in the world of organized combat sport, and features a k...moreLike his Last Minute Replacement, which I reviewed earlier this year, this short story is set in the world of organized combat sport, and features a kick-butt female fighter. The differences, though, are significant. That story was an exercise in realistic fiction, and set in the context of legitimate mixed martial arts competition. Our story here is set in the darker context of illegal underground fighting, where the rich and depraved can afford to pay to watch dangerous, no-rules combats that can leave contestants maimed or dead. It also springs from a different kind of pulp tradition: that of outlandish adventure with a protagonist who can handle anything, whether that capability is realistic or not, and with speculative fiction elements as part and parcel of the story. To enjoy it properly, you have to check your reality meter at the door, and sit back for the ride --and Wong takes us on quite a ride! :-)
Protagonist Freya Blackstar appears in two earlier stories, Gothic Warrior and the Dark Man and Seeds of Despair, neither of which I've read; it would probably be better to read the stories in order, since some of her earlier adventures are alluded to here, and those stories might explain more of her background. (But as my rating indicates, I enjoyed this one as a stand-alone!) She's a self-styled Goth, and lead singer in a heavy-metal rock band, when she's not fighting. (I don't know a lot about Goth sub-culture, and I'm sure it's not monolithic; in her case, the main attributes seem to be a liking for the color black, and a penchant for dark-themed song lyrics --though in this story, we don't get to "hear' her sing.) While Blackstar isn't a Scandinavian name, her first name, and a few references to Norse mythology, hint at some Viking ancestry. More importantly, she's an extraordinarily strong young woman, with a thick skull, more than usual endurance and will power, considerable hand-to-hand fighting ability, more courage and pride than common sense, and a genuine liking for fighting --not for the pleasure of hurting people, since she's no bully picking on the weak, but for the physical challenge it offers. Fight her fair, in a sportsmanlike way, and she'll reciprocate. Discard the rules of human decency in a fight, and you'll find that though she's no sadist or killer, she can be both ruthless and savage. Either way, she fights to win. Where she's headed in this tale, those qualities will come in handy.
Some of the events in this story cross into weird fiction territory (as is the case in the other stories too, apparently), and wouldn't happen in the real world. The illegal fighting tournament run by an evil billionaire is an improbable, melodramatic set-up, an extreme situation to call forth the most primal realities (positive and negative) of human nature and behavior. It's true that not every aspect of the physical combats here is unrealistic. Freya is believably quicker moving than her heavier, more musclebound opponents, keeps her cool in a crisis, and often wins fights by superior smarts and/or by a knack for doing the unexpected. A level of will-power and faith in herself such as she has would genuinely make some difference. So would her sheer fighting skills, which I'm guessing are partly natural and instinctive and partly learned the hard way, in years of street fighting. But several other aspects ARE unrealistic. I've often said that in martial arts movies/TV in general, the long-lasting fights are pure make-believe, to humor audiences who don't want them to end quickly; in real life, no two people could continue to sustain the amount of blows the combatants do and still stand, let alone keep fighting (no matter how gifted they are with will power!). That's also the case here. Fictional Freya could inspire the Energizer bunny to keep "going, and going, and going:" but any real-life counterpart, taking the pummeling she does, would quickly be out of action (and probably unconscious) with broken bones and internal organ and brain damage. (Ditto for most of her opponents.) And while it's certainly possible for a woman to be very strong (as some real-life women demonstrate!), and it doesn't take tall stature to be so (Freya's 5' 7"), it does take some muscles --more of them than the cover art in the other Freya stories suggest that she has, considering that here she's often doing things like lifting more than her own weight, etc. And I'm dubious as to whether any human (man or woman) could perform some of her feats.
Fans of this kind of fiction, though, aren't drawn to it to savor the realism, which (at least in these kinds of particulars) is irrelevant. Rather, they want stirring action, with a protagonist they enjoy rooting for. Wong delivers that here, in spades. Most of the characters aren't very three-dimensional (Freya's gentle sidekick, Annabeth, is the best developed of the secondary characters, and the strong depiction of female friendship and loyalty between the two is a real plus here), but Freya's really well-developed as a person, and as the story progresses the reader comes to see her as someone much more positive than just a rough-edged brawling machine. And she has to make some real ethical choices here, before the last page is read --choices with a relevance to real life, that elevate the story. Despite the dark-sounding premise, and a LOT of violence (a couple of instances are grisly, though they're passed over quickly), the tone is actually surprisingly light; we're not afraid for Freya, since we fully expect her to lick any opponent she faces, and her streak of wry humor leavens the proceedings. There's no sexual content here, and only a few bad words, most of them not very rough. (Freya blurts out one of the only two f-words, in a sudden situation of shock and pain; but considering the type of social world she lives in, she's actually usually more clean-mouthed than many of her real-life counterparts probably are.)
If you're partial to brave, tough fighting heroines, Freya Blackstar is a walking definition of the type; I think she'll earn an honorable place in your roster of those ladies, as she has in mine! I'm hoping to read more about her, starting with the other two stories listed above.
Note: I got this story at a time when it was being given away free on Amazon. (I missed out on an earlier give-away of "Seeds of Despair," thinking it was a novel instead of a short story; the thumping noise in the background is me kicking myself! :-) )(less)
Although I'm a fan of author Billy Wong, all of my previous experience of his work has been with his short stories. My three-star rating for this firs...moreAlthough I'm a fan of author Billy Wong, all of my previous experience of his work has been with his short stories. My three-star rating for this first novel I've read by him correctly indicates that I liked it, and is more positive than the two stars my Goodreads friend Sadie gave it (though I think several of her criticisms are justified), but falls short of the four or five stars I've usually given his short stories. That's partly because I rate short stories differently, since unlike novels they're aimed at creating a single effect for the reader; and partly because Wong's strengths as a writer are more diluted in long fiction, and his weaknesses more apparent. Some (not all) writers are more gifted at one or the other format, and I think that at this point in his career Wong's forte probably is the short story. But this novel offers both pluses and minuses, as I'll try to indicate below.
This is of course the opening volume of the Legend of the Iron Flower series, featuring female warrior Rose Agen, whom I "met" and liked in Bad Milk. When her saga opens, Rose is a 15-year-old girl (she turns 16 later in the book). Despite the teen protagonist, however, I wouldn't call this YA fiction (though some teens of both sexes would probably like it). Also, while our setting is a fantasy world, it's atypical for swords-and-sorcery fantasy in that it's on the low-magic side: magic exists, but it's mostly left over from an earlier time when great sorcerers still practiced it; they've left artifacts and spells behind, but magical knowledge is largely lost. (And creatures like ogres exist, but we don't see much of them.) It's a pretty violent world, with a lot of brigandage and warfare, and a feudal system that can leave people at the mercy of tyrant rulers. We get the impression that teens here are expected to grow up quickly, so Rose's relative maturity for her age, by our standards, probably isn't unusual. Her physical prowess is. She was born to a snowbound mother in the midst of the coldest winter in memory, with the firewood gone, and survived. She grew into a tall, big-boned girl with a physique to match, and an iron constitution. People call her "God-touched" or a "freak" (sometimes in the same breath). She's the best wrestler among the youth in her village, and like the others has fenced some with wooden swords for the fun of it. But her life takes a different turn when she kills her first man (in self-defense) at 15; and over the next couple of years or so, a LOT of men follow him to the grave.
Rose is a stand-out character, unique even among butt-kicking fantasy heroines who are more common in today's literature than they used to be, and the main reason for the three stars here. While she's not an unflawed super-saint who never makes a bad choice, she's a genuinely ethical person who cares about others, and her sole reason for taking up a sword is to protect innocents, because she can, and she sees the ability as carrying a duty with it. She kills only the aggressively wicked; but the burden of taking many lives (not all of whom are as evil as others, and some of whom may have loved ones) still weighs believably on her. Sometimes she sees herself as a "monster;" she can agonize over whether she's too quick to resort to the sword, and recognizes that violence isn't always the only way out of conflicts. These struggles are intensified when she meets up with a sect of philosophically-based pacifists. The internal and external debates here are serious, not superficial, and believable; like Rose (and Wong) I come down on the side of feeling that violence is sometimes necessary, but I don't think it's a good thing, and I think the kinds of discussions that take place here are worth having --and very relevant to the real world. (In case anyone hasn't noticed, brigandage, war and tyranny all seem pretty widespread in this world too. :-( )
Bad language here is confined to the d-word/h-word sort, and isn't too pervasive. There's a certain amount of teenage drinking in the book, and Rose abuses alcohol on a couple of occasions as an opiate for stress and internal conflict. But unlike the reference in Wong's Best in the Elf-ing World (which I criticized on that account), I didn't get the impression that it's glamorized here; it feels more like a bad choice that we understand but don't approve. We also have a romantic thread in the plot, and teenage love leads to teenage sex, although there's no explicit sex at all, and Wong downplays the sexual element (in the single passage where he refers to it directly, he actually handles it very tastefully, and makes it clear that it's motivated by love, not lust). Again, it's not so much promoted as portrayed as something that's believable that Rose might do in her situation --of course, we don't know exactly what her cultural situation is, as far as customary sexual ethics go; that's related to Wong's weakness at world-building (see below). In many ways, she strikes me as a realistic teen (for a rough culture that doesn't coddle adolescence): her wanderlust and thirst for adventure, for instance, and her relationship with her parents (loving, but not without conflicts). Some other characters, like Angela and Ethan, are also relatively well-developed. Wong can write action well, and he delivers a lot of it here. Despite the staggering body count, though, and the level of physical mayhem (fighters can get beheaded, gutted, lose limbs, etc.) he doesn't wallow in gratuitous descriptions of gore; this never degenerates into pornography of violence. His plotting is strictly linear and somewhat episodic, but it has a variety of situations and threw me some real surprises at times. He puts Rose into thought-provoking situations (one in particular) where right and wrong doesn't have easy answers. And I give him credit for giving us a brawny, battle-scarred heroine whose looks don't conform to the Victoria's Secret party-line model of beauty (and that doesn't mean she's not beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside).
Those are pluses; what are the minuses? This is Wong's first novel, and it shows. (He's a young writer; what we're reading now is what critics, if he lives a normal lifetime, will someday refer to as his "early work.") The writing style lacks polish and texture, and is somewhat barebones and minimalist. World-building is a weakness. As we go, we pick up the fact that Rose's country, Kayland, is a large, patched-together state of many formerly independent entities, that the level of technology seems to be roughly medieval, and that religion is vaguely polytheistic with a belief in an afterlife where punishment or reward depends on behavior. But that's really about all. There isn't much sense of cultural differences in different parts of Kayland, or between Kaylanders and Vlin barbarians, and everybody seems to have the same language. (And while Wong avoids glaring Americanisms in the characters' speech, it's odd in a fantasy world to find characters whose first names are uniformly like those in our culture, such as "Eddie" or "Millie.") Dialogue often sounds like it's written to serve the plot, not to reflect the way these characters actually would speak in the situation. The author sometimes falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. We're often not given information we'd like, and that would enhance the story. He doesn't get around to describing Rose, even to telling us her age, until well after she's introduced, for instance. (And I'd have liked a lot more description of Millie's underground cave.) We also don't have anything to peg an internal chronology on, what with very few notices of how much time passes in parts of the tale; we know Rose turns 16 at one point, but there's no progression of seasons to give us an idea of the time of the year at any point.
For me, a serious weakness is the fact that Rose is TOO incredibly physically resilient and hard to kill. I can accept that Wong wants to make her super-tough and larger than life. That describes Conan, Dark Agnes, Jirel of Joiry, etc., too; but we always have the sense that they're mortal. True, Rose can be hurt, seriously; feel pain galore, and bleed copiously, and wounds can lay her low for a time. But on at least four occasions, she survives wounds that she and everybody else thinks are mortal, and probably should be; and she can keep fighting long after any normal human, no matter how tough, would be unconscious. (That's true of some other characters, too.) That makes for spectacular fight scenes; it doesn't make for realism. It also reduces the stakes in her battles, and makes her harder to relate to (for the same reason that I personally don't relate as well to super-heroes as to normally-abled humans). In the same vein, I would really question whether any human being could sustain a thirty-foot drop onto solid rock without serious injury. (This kind of thing is a weakness with Wong's Freya Blackstar story cycle, as well.) And while Wong's creation of a sentient, carnivorous bush that's mobile is a highly original touch, (view spoiler)[it's greatly weakened by the fact that its formidable mind-control power appears to simply wimp out for no reason at the crucial moment, enabling Rose to kill it :-( (hide spoiler)].
The point probably needs to be made that self-publishing can allow a novel to bypass any kind of editing process that could have made it a much better book --to be sure, some self-published books have the benefit of free-lance editors and/or beta readers; but they don't have to, and I don't think this one did. If it had, it might have been a four or five-star book. But even as is, it was a read I enjoyed, and wanted to come back to each time I had to close it. Rose is a heroine I enjoy spending time with, and I do want to eventually read the rest of the series. (Though there are several series I can say that about; and at the rate that I read, finishing any of them would be an epochal event. :-( ). And yes, my condition for buying a print copy (I got the e-book for my Kindle app when it was being given away free for a limited time) was fully met; I did like it enough to plan to buy the paperback, ASAP. That's a debt I think I owe the author (and a courtesy I think a young lady like the Iron Flower deserves! :-) ).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)