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.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. 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. :-) )...more
Published in 1998, this is the second of several installments in editor Friesner's series of original-story anthologies featuring strong, mostly warriPublished in 1998, this is the second of several installments in editor Friesner's series of original-story anthologies featuring strong, mostly warrior women in (mostly) a sword-and-sorcery fantasy milieu. Marion Zimmer Bradley's older, long-running Sword and Sorceress series is the closest counterpart, but the stories Friesner selects are much more often on the humorous side, and relatively lighter on actual violence --the protagonists here can handle themselves well in a fight, but tend in practice to triumph more by the use of intelligence, or to be able to find common ground with potential opponents where that's possible. (Lethal violence is more apt to be mentioned, if at all, as an event that happened before the action in the particular story.) Many of my comments in my review (www.goodreads.com/review/show/16090294 ) of the first collection, Chicks in Chainmail, are relevant here, and my overall enjoyment was similar. (I rated both books at four stars.)
There are 19 stories here, written by 23 authors (three are two-person collaborations); as she did the first time, Friesner herself contributes a story, in addition to her role as editor. Eleven of these, including Harry Turtledove, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, and Margaret Ball, also contributed to the 1995 first collection. Among the authors new to the series (and to me) here are Barbara Hambly, Sarah Zettel and S. M. Stirling. Besides her story, Friesner also prefaces the book with a dedicatory poem to Lucy Lawless, star of the then still-running Xena, Warrior Princess TV show. In keeping with the tone of most of the stories, her poetic style is more Ogden Nash than Dante, and she doesn't take herself too seriously (after the poem, she appends a quote from Dr. Johnson, "Bad doggerel. No biscuit!" :-) ) --but there's an underlying seriousness of equalitarian feminist message as well. (The final selection, Adam-Troy Castro's "Yes, We Did Say Chicks!" is a similarly tongue-in-cheek flash fiction, but it's cute!)
Not all of the stories are actual sword-and-sorcery, or fantasy. One of the two strictly serious ones, Turtledove's "La Difference," is a science-fiction yarn set on the Jovian moon Io, as a male-female pair of scientists trek across a dangerous and unforgiving alien terrain as they flee from enemy soldiers bent on slaughtering them. (This is also one where the female doesn't singlehandedly save the day; she and her male partner work as a very good team.) Laura Anne Gilman's "Don't You Want to Be Beautiful?" is set in our own all-too-familiar world, where females are pressured by advertising and culture to fixate on their appearance and spend vast sums on products that supposedly enhance it; and it isn't clear if the surreal aspects of the story are really happening or are the protagonist's hallucinations. (This is one of a few stories that women readers will probably relate to more easily than men will.) Slue-Foot Sue, the heroine of Laura Frankos' contribution, is the bride of Pecos Bill in the American tall-tale tradition, of which this story is definitely a continuation (though it's also one of two stories that feature Baba Yaga, the witch figure from Russian folklore). And while the story is fantasy, the title character of Doranna Durgin's "A Bitch in Time" isn't a woman, but a female dog --albeit one who's trained to detect and guard against magic.
My favorite story here is Hambly's "A Night With the Girls," the other strictly serious tale in the group. This features her female warrior series character, Starhawk, here on an adventure without her male companion Sun Wolf; I'd heard of these two before, but never read in that fictional corpus. (I'm definitely going to remedy that in the future!) Both Moon and Ball bring back their protagonists from their stories in the first book for another outing here, to good effect. The protagonist of Lawrence Watt-Evans' "Keeping Up Appearances" is a professional hired assassin, who approaches her chosen line of work pretty matter-of-factly, without noticeable moral qualms. But she's also capable of genuine love and loyalty, especially towards her business partner and common-law husband, with whom she hopes to one day settle down and retire. So when she returns from a trip to find that he's unilaterally accepted a contract on a powerful wizard and, while trying to scout the job by himself, gotten turned into a hamster, we can sympathize with her distress, and hope she can reverse the situation. (Can she? Sorry, no spoilers here!) If you've read Beowulf and want to know what really happened to Grendel, check out Friesner's "A Big Hand for the Little Lady." And Steven Piziks' "A Quiet Knight's Reading" is another tale that's close to my heart (you'll see why if you read it!). At the other end of the spectrum, two stories I didn't especially care for were Scarborough's "The Attack of the Avenging Virgins" and Mark Bourne's "Like No Business I Know." (The former story, among other things, delivers an essentially sound message, but in a story so message driven that it's more of a tract, and with an annoyingly "PC" vibe.
As with the original book, bad language is absent or minimal in most stories. Bourne's is the exception, with quite a bit of it, including religious profanity and one use of the f-word. :-( Sexual content is more noticeable in this volume, with unmarried sex acts (not explicit) in a couple of selections, rape of males by females in another, and a lesbian/bisexual theme thrown into another one as a surprise (not a pleasant one for this reader, because of the way it's handled). In fairness, though, the most frankly erotic story, "Oh Sweet Goodnight!" with its focus on the heroine's sex life, is essentially subversive of the modern ethos of sexual looseness, predation, kinkiness and nihilism. Fern's learned some lessons the hard way, by experience, but the male-female author team here doesn't glorify the situations where she was taken advantage of, and the one relationship it does celebrate isn't a loose dalliance; the message here is actually relatively wholesome. (This is also a story where magic is absent; she's a sword-toting guardswoman in a low-tech society, but she could just as easily be a divorced single mom in modern America, making a living as a cop or security guard --and modern readers will find her easy to relate to on that basis.)
Here as in the first volume, the short bio-critical end notes on all of the authors are an interesting plus....more
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 theFull 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....more