Sunday, October 31, 2010

Congratulations to the World Fantasy Award Winners

Announced this afternoon were the winners of the 2010 World Fantasy Awards:

     The City and the City by China Mie'ville

     "Sea Hearts" by Margo Lanagan

Short Story
     "The Pelican Brief" by Karen Joy Fowler

     American Fantastic Tales:  Terror and the Uncanny: From Poe to the Pulps/From the 1940's to Now,
          Peter Straub, ed.

Collection (tie):
     There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla
     The Very Best of Gene Wolf/eThe Best of Gene Wolfe by Gene Wolfe

     Charles Vess

Special Award - Professional
     Jonathan Strahan for editing anthologies

Special Award - Non -Professional
     Susan Marie Groppi for Strange Horizons

Life Achievement (previously announced)
     Brian Lumley
     Terry Prachett
     Peter Straub

Adventures Fantastic would like to congratulate all the winners.  I've read "The Pelican Brief" but not any of the others.  Seems like I've got some catching up to do.  Again, congratulations to all the nominees, and especially to the winners.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Cab Ride to Murder

Nobody's Angel
Jack Clark
Hardcase Crime
paperback, June 2010, 220 pg

At first glance a crime novel about a cab driver, while possibly adventurous, may not sound all that fantastic.  But keep in mind, one person's mundane is another person's fantastic. 

When cab drivers are presented in fiction, whether in film or in literature, they often serve merely as chauffeurs or as comic foils.  When they're the central characters, too many times they're romanticized.  (I have never seen the show Taxi, so the applicability of any comments I make in this post to that show is purely coincidental.)  At least that's been my observation, although I've not done any scientific study.  The only cab driver stories I know of in which the cabbie was played straight, and not for laughs, was in the Steve Midnight tales by John K. Butler.  These ran mostly in Dime DetectiveAdventure House has reprinted them in At the Stroke of Midnight, which I read a few years back and quite enjoyed.  Other than this volume, Butler is pretty much out of print except for a story in the odd anthology, a mistake that someone will hopefully correct.  And soon.

Anyway, Nobody's Angel tells the story of Eddie Miles, a Chicago cabbie who happens to become involved in two different series of killings while working the night shift.  In one, someone is mutilating and murdering prostitutes.  Eddie stumbles on one of the killings, causing the killer to drive away before completing his task, and the result is the intended victim ends up being the only survivor.  In the other, someone is knocking off cab drivers.  Eddie is a friend of the latest victim as well as the last person to see him alive.  You can imagine how this makes the police take an interest in him, although they don't take the expected approach and hassle Eddie or even suspect him.  Instead they ask him to keep his eyes and ears open.

Clark does an excellent job of showing us the world of the night shift through Eddie's eyes.  It's a world most of us probably wouldn't want to see on a daily basis.  While there is certainly room for humor and camaraderie, especially among the cabbies, it's a world that is often sordid and profane.  And at times out right deadly.

Clark opens each chapter with one of the ordinances governing cab drivers in the city of Chicago.  This technique gives insight into the lives of the cabbies.  All good fantasy and science fiction, at least at novel length, will take the reader and transport him or her into the life of someone in another world, hopefully one that is different enough to be exotic while at the same time having enough touchstones of the familiar to allow the reader to relate.  Clark proves that sometimes some of the most exotic settings can literally be right around the corner.  While reading the book, he made the world of the Chicago cab driver real to me, even though I'd never been to that city or was even very familiar with its geography.  This is something the urban detective tale does when the author is working at the top of the form:  give the detective's city an identity so that the city transcends place and setting and becomes a character in its own right.  It's a hard trick to pull off, but Clark does it.  When I learned on his website that Jack Clark drives a cab himself, I wasn't surprised.  If I were a betting man, I would bet that some of the fares Eddie picks up are based on those of Jack himself.  One or two are so out there, they had to be true.

There is action and violence in the book, but that's not what the plot revolves around.  Instead it's the threat of violence, coming when unexpected, and the sense of danger permeating the city.  Lennie, Eddie's friend who is murdered, is an old and experienced cabbie, with plenty of street smarts.  The fact that someone is able to get past his guard rattles the drivers.  The second killer carving up streetwalkers only adds to the tension, as do Eddie's attempts to locate the killer's van again.  We learn how Eddie thinks, the mistakes he's made, the regrets he has.  Yet deep inside, he's a hero.  He does the right thing, more than once, when there's a very real possibility the right thing could get him hurt, robbed, killed, or any combination of the above.  More than that, he's ready when he has to fight.  While his weapon of choice may not be a sword or a blaster, he wields it with skill, and he's not afraid to risk his life in a tight situation.

Nobody's Angel is more than just a study in character and place.  There is a mystery in the book.  The clues are there.  I'm annoyed I missed them, because when I got to the end, it was obvious what I'd overlooked.  And the more I think about it, the more obvious it is.

Overall, this was one of the better noir crime novels I've read in a while, and I tend to read a lot of them in between the fantasy, science fiction, and historical adventure.  While I may have been put off by some of the things Eddie encountered, I'd ride along with him again any time.

Finally, I want to say a word about Hard Case Crime.  For something like six years or so now, publisher Charles Ardai has been bringing out some of the best old and new noir-style crime novels by established Grandmasters (can you say Lawrence Block and Donald E. Westlake?), forgotten pros whose names should be better known, such as Cornell Woolrich (it pains me to put him in this category) and Charles Williams, to nwer writers who are worth keeping an eye on (think Dominic Stansberry for one).  And the cover art is something to behold.  You can see all of them here.

Their printer and distributor has been Dorchester Books, which earlier this year announced they were switching to ebooks.  What that means is that volume 66, Brett Halliday's Mike Shayne novel Murder is My Business is the last Hard Case book you'll see in mass market paperback for a while, maybe ever.  Volume 67 is scheduled to be released in hardcover through Subterranean Books, and there are plans to continue the line, although details are sketchy.  Also the Gabriel Hunt mens' adventure series (an offshoot of Hard Case), the Cosmos collections of the weird fiction of Robert E. Howard, and the Leisure line of horror are now gone.  As in off the shelves.  At least in the chain box stores like Barnes and Noble.  And they've probably been pulped, which means copies will become more and more collectible as the years pass.

I had to order the Hard Case and Gabriel Hunt volumes I was missing from two different independent booksellers who specialize in mysteries.  I have all the Hard Case and the first five of the Gabriel Hunt.  I don't know if the sixth Hunt will be published on schedule this month or not.  I tend to doubt it.  Hopefully it will see print someday soon.  I'll take a look at the Hunt books here in the future as I can fit them in.  But I do want to thank Charles Ardai and his team for bringing me so many hours of reading pleasure throughout the last few years.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Long Looks at Short Fiction: The Killing Ground by Paul Finch

The Killing Ground
by Paul Finch
collected in Ghost Realm
Ash-Tree Press,
hardcover, 247 pg., 2008, Cndn $49/ US $49/ L28

When I was in second or third grade, I don't recall which, I checked out a volume from the school library called A Book of Ghosts and Goblins by, so the internet tells me, Ruth Manning-Sanders.  The internet also tells me it was a collection of folktales from around the world.  I don't remember that part of it, nor do I remember many particulars about most of the stories.  This was, after all, about [CENSORED] years ago.  I remember a few things.  There was one where a little girl got lost or something and ended up in a castle with a talking skull.  The skull had her fix a pancake for supper.  When the girl cut the pancake in half, the skull's half turned black.  I don't remember what else happened, but that scene made an indelible impression on me.

The other story I remember, and I remember it quite well to this day, was the final story, "The Leg of Gold."  You've probably heard or read at least one version of it.  The wife of a rich man trips on the stairs, falls, and breaks her leg so badly it needs to be amputated.  He replaces it with a leg of gold.  Some time passes, and once again she trips (on the hem of her dress, as I recall) and falls, this time breaking her neck.  Her husband has her buried with the leg, but the valet sneaks back to the graveyard and steals it.  Or something to that effect.  Anyway, this is where the action takes place.  The wife starts calling out from the grave day and night for her leg of gold.  The husband goes to the grave to console her, telling her she was buried with it.  She ignores him (probably just like she did in life) and continues to call for the leg.  Finally, the husband gets tired of hearing her calling day and night, night and day, and sends the valet, who by this time is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, to the grave to find out what she wants.  When he asks, she cries, "It is you that I want," rises up from the grave, and drags him back down with her where she devours him.

That story scared the living crap out of me.  I woke up in the middle of the night every night for the next seven nights, terrified that there were ghosts in the room.  I know it was seven nights, because I counted them. I was afraid I would never get another peaceful night's sleep.  There was a whole series of books by this author, and I remember the library having some of them.  I don't recall if I read any of the others, though.  Probably learned my lesson with this one.  On the other hand, knowing me, naah, probably not.  I think I checked out at least one other book in the series, although I didn't have as extreme a reaction to the contents.

Anyway, it was literally years before I could read a ghost story by the light of the afternoon sun and not get a good case of the creeps that night.  But once I grew out of that phase, I realized something.  It was a heck of a lot of fun to be scared silly by a ghost story.

Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to the story at hand.  For over a decade now, Ash-Tree Press has been publishing nice, well-bound collections of ghost stories.  They've reprinted all the classic writers of the tale such as M. R. James, H. Russell Wakefield, the Benson brothers, and A. M. Burrage, among others.  And if you haven't gotten copies of some of those first volumes, don't bother.  They're long out of print, and if you can find copies on the secondary market (good luck), you probably can't afford them.  (Not everything by the above authors is out of print.  There's still one or two Wakefield books and at least one by E. F. Benson in print.  But Burrage, forget it.  They're gone.)  But they also publish collections by newer writers who are well on their way to becoming masters of the form, such as Simon Bestwick, Terry Lamsley, Steve Duffy, and, case in point, Paul Finch.

Ghost Realm is the second collection from Finch published by Ash-Tree.  The first was After Shocks and a third, Walkers in the Dark, is forthcoming.  And lest you think Finch only writes ghost stories, he's also written some heroic fantasy which I hope to talk about somewhere down the road.  Anyway, this is a collection of nine stories, the longest of which by far is "The Killing Ground."  The stories in this book are all based on some aspect of British folklore or history, and Finch provides story notes at the back of the book explaining each story's inspiration.

This story takes place in the midlands and concerns a (still young) married couple of retired police officers who now work as  private detectives.  The story opens with a prologue in which a gamekeeper on an unnamed estate is trying to catch something in the dark.  He meets a rather grisly end involving two bear traps.  We later learn this was several decades in the past.  Skipping to the present, Alec and Ruth, our detectives are hired by an American movie star.  It seems he wants them to investigate rumors he's heard about a country estate he recently purchased.  The star's wife, a star in her own right, is from Mexico and is very superstitious.  The couple have one daughter, Claudette.  The star wants to throw an elaborate Christmas party there and needs to convice his wife everything is safe.  Upon investigating, it turns out the estate once held a castle in which the lady of the manor and her son were captured during a war by one of her husband's ennemies.  Once he was killed in battle in another part of the country, she and her son lost their value as hostages and were walled up alive.  Legend has it she made a deal with the forces of darkness for revenge.  The condition set to her was that she eat her son.  (He was already dead by this time.)  Ever since, children have been disappearing, starting with the son of the man who walled her and her child up alive.  Upon learning this, the movie star hires Alec and Ruth as additional protection for his daughter.

There were several creepy moments, but for the most part the story reads more like a thriller than a traditional ghost story.  Some of you may be wondering why I'm reviewing a ghost story on blog devoted to adventure fiction with a fantastic bent.  Traditionally ghost stories, while creepy and scary, aren't generally considered adventure tales.  There's plenty of adventure in this one.  Something is definitely amiss at the manor, and the action scenes are gripping and involving.  At times I could almost buy into Alec's insistence that nothing supernatural was taking place.  Almost.  I know, however, that Ash-Tree doesn't publish that type of "ghost" story, where everything has a nice rational explanation. 

The preceding sentence isn't meant to imply that the story isn't well written or that I didn't like it.  It was, and I did.  Finch has worked as both a policeman and a journalist.  As a result, he has a lean style that flows very nicely.  Even his descriptive passages about the history of the manor flowed well and were easy to read.  Instead of throwing me out of the story, as some info dumps can do, they pulled me in deeper and helped buiild the suspense.  Finch handles the rationalist Alec and his growing conflict with his wife Ruth, who buys into the ghost theory early on, with a deft, sure hand.  Ruth and Alec are unable to have children, although they've tried.  Every attempt ended in a miscarriage, and the last try was literally the last.  Ruth develops a strong attachment to Claudette, something her governess, a superstitious old Mexican woman, resents.  Because of this, she is more open than her husband to the possibility that Claudette is in danger.  The growing tensions between the characters propel the plot and add to the suspense.   The viewpoint shifts back and forth between Alec and Ruth.  In the hands of a lesser writer this would be annoying.  Finch makes it feel natural.

While this wasn't quite the traditional ghost story I was expecting, I enjoyed it immensely and recommend it highly.  The historical note at the back of the book added to the experience by allowing me a glimpse into this particular author's process of finding inspiration in historical fact and weaving that into a story.  While the setting and history of the estate are ficticious, the walling up alive and the cannibalism are based on actual events.  Fortunately, Finch doesn't concentrate on these points, but instead focuses on characters, using the history to provide atmosphere and motivation for his specter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Long Looks at Short Fiction: The Natural History of Calamity by Robert J. Howe

The Natural History of Calamity
Robert J. Howe
Black Gater 14, $15.95

The current issue of Black Gate is so thick, and has so many stories in it, that I want to look at another one before moving on to other venues to examine short fiction.  Next up in this series of posts will be something seasonal (a ghost story), probably followed by something science fictional.

Anyway, on to the story at hand.  This one concerns a female private investigator, one Debbie Colavito, who works as a karmic detective.  She has the ability to detect a person's karma, and, although it's not exactly explained how, she can make changes in that karma.

Now the whole concept of karma is one I've never bought into.  At all.  So right off the bat, I had a hard time getting into the story because I couldn't accept its basic premise.  However, since I had made up my mind to examine the story here in my Long Looks at Short Fiction series of posts, I decided I would try to put my prejudices aside and give the story a try.  Fortunately, that wasn't as hard to do as I thought. 

The story opens with Debbie being visited by a prospective client, Will Charbonneau.  Seems Will's lady love, Becky, has suddenly up and dumped him for a car salesman.  Will and Becky met in the Peace Corps, moved in together after they both returned stateside, and are working as high school teachers.  Will is clearly heartbroken and confused over Becky's sudden change of heart.  They were talking about getting married, after all.  Can Debbie check into things and help him understand why this has happened?  He's seen a feature about her in the paper, so he knows she's a karmic detective.

Debbie takes the case, albeit with a little reluctance, since she's sure that Becky's decision to move out was made without any influence from the car salesman.  That is until she discovers the car salesman is Micheal, someone she dated in high school until he raped her on a date.  She hasn't seen or heard from him in years.  As they used to say, from this point on, the plot thickens.

Howe gives Debbie Colavito a distinctive voice, one that's part wise-cracking PI, part single woman making ends meet on her own.  Now I'm a huge fan of traditional PI stories, especially those told in first-person.  I don't care how cliched some people consider the trope to be, it's always been one of my favorites.  And Howe does a good job with this one.  There's a genuine mystery here.  Not all the people or situations are as they appear.  Even if I did have trouble buying into the whole karmic detective angle, Howe develops Debbie's character well and made her someone I cared about. 

He does a good job of writing a woman's perspective.  Conventional wisdom is that many men can't write from a woman's viewpoint effectively.  While I don't completely buy that I idea either, (people are people no matter what their gender) I don't completely diasgree with it.  Men and women are wired differently mentally and emotionally.  Debbie is not simply a male detective in drag.  She is able to bond with Becky, whereas a male detective in a more traditional PI story would probably end up in bed with her.  Which is not to say Debbie is completely sexless.  She finds Will attractive.  She just doesn't try to manipulate his emotions to get in bed with him.  In fact, when a situation arises in which she could, she deliberately doesn't.

The writing is in the story is smooth, and the action flows.  The characters are individuals.  Howe has an easy to read style, probably due to his journalism background.  I don't know if Howe has written any other stories about this character.  The author bio doesn't mention any, and Black Gate does a good job of listing previous installments in a series.  While it wasn't what I would consider exactly my cup of tea, I would certainly consider reading more about this character.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Shadow's Son

Shadow's Son
Jon Sprunk
Pyr Books
Trade paperback, $16

I liked this book a lot, and for a number of reasons, not the least of which it was short.  I realize that sounds like a slam, but it's not.  In an age of Book Bloat; four, five, or more volume "trilogies"; and series where readers are literally kept waiting years for the next installment (Are you listening George R. R. Martin?), it is refreshing to find a fantasy that can be told in one volume.  That this fantasy not only ties up all the loose ends, which is not the same as answering all the questions, and does so with style, characcterization, multiple viewpoints, and plenty of action, is very much a breath of fresh air.

This is a first novel, which makes it even more impressive.  The story starts out with Caim, a hired assassin, carrying out a contract on a ruler in another kingdom.  He's assisted in this endeavor by Kit, a young "woman" who can only be seen and heard by him and has the ability to walk through walls.  You can probably see how useful a companion like this would be to an assassin.  Can you say "spy"? 

Unfortuantely Kit has a habit of disappearing for long periods of time.  Considering Caim can only see and hear her but not touch her, this seems to make any romance doomed from the start.  There is no doubt love exists between them, although not necesssarily (or at least enitrely) of the romantic sort.

Upon returning to the city of Othir, Caim decides to take some time off, but his broker Mathias convices him to take one more job.  Reluctantly, Caim agrees.  When he tells Kit about, she's not enthused and encourages him to back out.  Beliving he is going to assassinate a retired general responsible for atrocities and the death of innocents, Caim arrives to find his target already dead, in a very messy manner.  Before he can decide what to do next, the victim's daughter Josey shows up.  She's soon followed by a group of soldiers with orders to see that Caim is killed trying to escape.  They also have orders to kill Josey and make it look like she was an additional victim.  Caim manages to escape, taking Josey with him.

And from there his life goes rapdily downhill.  We learn throughout the course of the story that Caim is an orphan who watched his father murdered before his eyes as a young boy.  His mother was carried off by the same men who killed his father.  He has been on his own since his teens and has powers no one else has, powers he doesn't understand and therefore fears.  At some point in his past, Kit showed up, alledgedly looking for a little brother and found him.  Sprunk implies this takes place before his parents are killed, but I don't recall that ever being explicitly stated.  Exactly who or what Kit is, or where she comes from, Caim doesn't know.  And Kit isn't saying.

The action is fast and furious, the fight scenes well coreographed, and the character development good.  This novel has one of the more interesting love triangles I've seen in quite a while.  Also, while Caim is the primary viewpoint character, and Josey the secondary, Sprunk also lets us see things from the views of some of the other characters, not all of whom survive until the end of the book.  Not only does he show us the good guys, the villains, and there are quite a few, also get their moments in the spotlight.

Like I said, I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  That doesn't mean I think it's perfect.  It's a first novel, and that shows at times.  The two things that grated on my suspension of disbelief the most were Caim catching a crossbow bolt in the side, a great deal being made about how much pain he was in, then climbing walls and fighting two days later.  In a related scene, Caim sneaks back into the house where he found his victim already dead, and Sprunk mentions the lawn has become overgrown.  In two days?  I used to mow lawns.  I don't think so.  Even with the rain and heat of east Texas, grass doesn't grow that fast.

My other gripes are minor.  I would have liked to know a little more about the geography of Sprunk's world.  The brief author bio at the end of the book says he's working on the sequel.  I suspect we'll learn a lot more then.  I also would have liked to know a little more about the Church (not the Catholic Church or from what information given even a Christian one) and how it took over the empire.

But none of these things spoiled the story for me.  The book was fun, entertaining, and held my interest.  Sprunk does an admirable job in making his characters real people and shows them changing and growing.  For example, Caim is a killer, no doubt about it, but he wasn't always that way, and the possiblity of changing is before him.  Sprunk could have written Caim's powers to make him a superman.  Instead he shows us Caim's fear and confusion regarding them, and makes his hero more human, and in the process more heroic because of that.  Caim, Josey, Kit, and a number of other characters, both major and minor make choices and live with the consequences.  I cared what happened to the characters, even the villains.  Of course with most of the villains, I cared how bloody an end they met.  Sprunk made me hate them that much without turning them into cardboard cutouts.  All the major villains got at least one viewpoint scene.

I said earlier that wrapping up all the loose ends isn't the same as answering all the questions.  In the end, there is a sense of closure but not finality.  We don't know everything at the end of the book.  There are enough unanswered questions and situations in the greater world that aren't addressed that Sprunk should be able to get at least one good sequel out of this book.  Caim is just now beginning to figure out who he really is, as is Josey.  What we do know is how the characters, both those who survive and those who don't, grow and change as they face adversity. 

That's what makes good fiction, and that's what makes fantastic fiction realistic.  Characters who are real people the reader cares about.  I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Nomad The Warrior: Addendum

It's been over a week since I last posted, which is longer than I would prefer.  To make up for it I'm going to post two reviews over the weekend, plus this post.  I guess that makes 2.5 posts, since this one is going to be brief.

Part of the reason I've not posted has to do with travel.  I've been trying to a get a former residence fixed up (anybody wanna buy a house?), and that took me to the other side of the state.  Texas is a big state.

Anyway, since I posted the review about Nomad The Warrior, I've done some further thinking (six hour drives are good for that).  Specifically about how religion is portrayed in the movie.  There's some ancester worship and shamanistic beliefs shown on the part of the Jungar.  The Kazakhs refer to the Almighty, and this is what intrigues me.  Whether they mean Allah, Jehovah, or someone else is never made clear.  I may be wrong, but I'm fairly certain by this time that the Kazakhs were Muslim.  Much of the story takes place in Turkestan.  The photo I posted from my visit there was of the Kodzha Achmed Yosavi Mausoleum, which dates to the 14th century, well before the events of the movie, and is considered to be the Mecca of the East in the Islamic world.  In other words, the hero of the movie should have been muslim.

I'm not sure why the movie referred to the deity of the Kazakhs as the Almighty.  Maybe this was a holdover from the Soviet days, but I don't think so.  It could have been a result of translating the movie into English.  On the other hand, it could have been done to make the movie more palatable to American audiences by omitting any overt references to Islam and thus making the hero more sympathetic to US movie-goers.

I haven't had time to watch the Kazakh version of the movie, but I understand in places there are some significant differences in the dialogue from the English version.  I need to make time to watch the Kazakh version and see who the Kazakhs pray to.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Long Looks at Short Fiction: Destroyer by James Enge

by James Enge
Black Gate 14, 384 pp., $15.95

If you're a fan of heroic fantasy, adventure fantasy, or just plain good ol' fashioned storytelling, and you haven't checked out Black Gate, then you owe it to yourself to do so.  Some of the best writing being done in the fantasy field right now is published here.  While the publication schedule is frustratingly slow, currently at two issues a year, this magazine is still worth waiting for.  John O'Neill brings the highest production and editorial values to his magazine, which is clearly a labor of love.  Since I haven't seen it on the newsstand in quite a while, your best bet of scoring a copy is directly from the publisher.  All back issues are available in both print and PDF format.  If you're thinking of subscribing, be sure and check out the special with Rogue Blades Entertainment.  A subscription to a great magazine plus an outstanding anthology is a hard deal to beat.  I'll be talking about Rogue Blades in a future installment.

Now, lest anyone thinks I'm on the payroll for either Black Gate or Rogue Blades, let's look at the story in question.  I envision these Long Looks at Short Fiction columns to be just what the name implies, a more detailed look at one or two pieces of short fiction in current publications, both print and electronic.  My definition of short fiction is anything from short story to novella length.

In fact, that's one of the things I think sets Black Gate apart from the major short fiction periodicals.  They're willling to publish novellas.  Now I can hear some of you saying, "Wait a minute, West.  Asimov's, Analog, and F&SF all regularly publish novellas", and indeed they do.  What separates Black Gate from the pro markets is that the Big Three (as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen) aren't willing to publish novellas from writers who aren't household names (yet).

A perfect of example of this is James Enge, who published his first Morlock Ambrosious story in BG 8, and has had stories of Morlock in almost every issue since.  Morlock is a hunchbacked wizard with a somewhat bleak outlook and not inconsiderable skill with a sword.  These days, Enge is hardly unknown.  He had two books about Morlock published last year, Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way, with a third, The Wolf Age, scheduled for publication sometime this month, meaning copies should be hitting  the shelves any day now.  And to top it off, he has gotten a World Fantasy Award nomination for Blood of Ambrose.  Good luck, James!

Anyway, on to the story.  "Destroyer" finds Morlock in the company of Roble, his sister Naeli, and her children, who were introduced in "The Lawless Hours" in BG 11, but you needn't have read that one to enjoy this one.  This time the story is (mostly) told from the viewpoint of one of the older kids, Thend.  I say mostly because occasionally the viewpoint seems to shift to Morlock, for example when he's conversing with a dragon guarding him, Thend, a werewolf, and a disgraced Khroi, a race of insect-like creatures.  The conversation takes place in the dragon language, which Enge tells us Thend does not speak.  Aside from the minor quibble of apparent view-point shift, the story moves briskly.

Now I don't normally care for action adventure stories told from a child's point of view because the children tend to be passive rather than active participants.  In this case, Thend (who seems to be in early adolescence, although I don't recall his age being given) is involved from the beginning.  The story opens with Morlock leading the party between two mountain ranges.  He takes Thend with him to investigate something he's seen that concerns him.  It turns out to be a Khroi warrior trapped in a web built by the spider people. 

A number of people have been attributed as saying some variation of "If you're not a liberal at [insert age] you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at [insert greater age] you have no brain", and that sentiment applies here to both Thend and Morlock as far as their ages are concerned.  Thend initially condemns Morlock for what he views as a penchant for killing everything and displays pacifist tendencies from time to time.  Morlock, on the other hand, says that his law is blood for blood.  But to apply that quoted adage strictly would be to oversimplify their characters.  Both men display actions that lead from the heart and actions that originated in the head. 

Morlock has no interest in rescuing the Khroi, who is still alive.  Thend cuts him down from the web.  The Khroi marks Thend by wounding him, wounds himself, then escapes.  Morlock informs Thend the Khroi did this so they could identify each other later.  As it turns out later on, this particular Khroi shows Thend an especially harsh form of mercy.

The pace of the story is swift, and the nonhuman characters intriguing as Morlock attempts to guide the party between Khroi and spider people without detection.  You can probably guess how sucessful he is in this.  Hint::  If he were successful, there would be no story.  And don't assume the ending is an entirely happy one.  The title Enge chose was "Destroyer," after all.  To find out just who the destroyer turns out to be, well, I'll never tell.

The real character development in the tale occurs with Thend.  It seems he has a touch of the sight but doesn't know how to use it when the story opens.  By the conclusion, he's gained both knowledge and experience, as well as discovering some heroic character traits and an ability to endure hardship, both of which he's lacking in the opening.  Initially Thend wants to be like his uncle Roble and not be treated like a child by his mother Naeli.  By being forced to work with Morlock, and not just in the opening scene but in an attempt to rescue his family, Thend's relationships with both his mother and his uncle undergo a transformation as he develops an independent identity as his own man.  The exact nature of that tranformation, I'll let you see for yourself when you read the story.  It's worse investing the time.

If it sounds like this is a coming of age story, it is.  Thend grows up through the course of events he has no choice in living through, much like real life.  It's what we allow our experiences to make us that determine who and what we become.  Without being heavy handed or preaching, Enge shows us this process in a boy who isn't really all that likable when we first meet him, although he is sympathetic to a point.

Of course, all the usual sardonic wit and cleverness we've come to expect from Morlock are on display here.  Morlock has been described as a thinking man's Conan, a comparison I think short changes the Cimmerian somewhat, but I have to agree with the sentiment.  Morlock uses his brain at least as much as he uses his magic or his sword.  The situation here isn't one he can simply get out of by either magic or swordsmanship (although both are necessary) because other lives are at stake, and the characters aren't all at the same location for part of the story. 

If you're not familiar with Morlock, this is as good a place as any to make his acquaintance.  If you've met the man, and haven't read "Destroyer," then what are you waiting for?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nomad, the Warrior

Nomad the Warrior (2005)
Starring Kuno Becker, Jay Hernandez, Jason Scott Lee
Directed by Sergey Bodrov and Ivan Passer

So I'm in the grocery store, looking at a selection of DVDs on an endcap between the cereal aisle and the cookie aisle (don't tell me these people don't understand product placement) when I pick up this movie with a guy holding a sword while screaming at some sort of army in the background.  Looks promising.  I turn the case over to read the synopsis and notice the movie is in two languages.  English.  And Kazakh.

Having spent some time in Kazakhstan, I'm sold.  It could have been a terrible movie, and I would have bought it simply because as I read the credits more closely, it was produced in Kazakhstan.  Fortunately, it wasn't a horrible movie.  It wasn't as great as it could have been, but it wasn't horrible.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The movie is set in 18th centurty Kazakhstan, where the nomadic Kazakh tribes, split into fueding factions by the typical greed and desire for power, are being slowly defeated by the Mongol Jungars.  Enter Oraz (Jason Scott Lee), who is some sort of an Obi-Wan figure, a warrior mystic respected by all the tribes, who is searching for a prophesied child who will become a warrior to unite and deliver the Kazakh tribesmen from their enemies.  The Jungars (often spelled Dzunghars) are lead by Galdan (Dokshan Zholzhaksynov) and his evil henchman General Sharish (Mark Dacascos).  Oraz manages to rescue the child, son of the sultan of Turkestan, just before his mother and the rest of their caravan are slaughtered by Sharish and his men, who are seeking to destroy the child and prevent fulfillment of the prophecy.  Oraz manages to convince the boy's father to let him raise the child to fulfill the prophecy. Even though the savior is supposed to be the son of a sultan and a direct descendant of Genghis Kahn, I kept wondering why Oraz simply didn't do the job himself.  Oraz proceeds to take one child from each of the Kazakh tribes and raises a brotherhood of freedom fighters. 

Once the boys have grown, Mansur (Kuno Becker), the prophesied one, and his best friend Erali (Jay Hernandez) fall for the same girl, Hocha, which complicates things and ends up driving a good portion of the plot.  Meanwhile Galdan has discovered that he didn't kill the prophesied child after all.  Sharish and his army lay siege to Turkestan.  I'm not sure where these scenes were shot, but it wasn't Turkestan.  There are too many hills outside the citiy.  Turkestan is on a plain.  I know; I've been there.  The picture below was taken in November, 2004, and shows the main surviving structure.  As you can see, no hills.  But that's a minor point that most Americans wouldn't be aware of.

Sharish challenges the Kazakhs to settle the dispute by single combat.  Erali volunteers, but Oraz tells him that Mansur must fight Sharish.  He thens informs Mansur that Sharish killed his mother, claps Mansur on the shoulder, and walks off.  Nothing like a little motivational speech to inspire the troops.

The fight that follows, like all the combat scenes is this movie, is extremely well coreographed.  The equine combat scenes, and there are more than one, are the best I've ever seen.  In fact, the cinematography, costumes, scenery, and musical score are outstanding.  This is clearly not a Hollywood production. 

That's both good and bad.  In an American movie, there are guidelines for how animals are to be treated during the filming.  For example, horses aren't tripped.  But there is one scene, where the girl Hocha (Dilnaz Akhmadieva) and her brother are captured by the Jungar,  a scene in which the horses are clearly tripped.  The Jungars have set up a rope across a road, and they raise it as the horses go by.  You can see one of the horses do a face plant in the dirt; it's a closeup of the horses and riders in slow motion.  Not something typically shown in a US movie.

The story has betrayal, love, heartbreak, courage, action, and all the other things you would expect from an epic.  A number of the supporting characters are reasonablly well developed for the amount of screen time they have.  Others, such as Sharish's brother, seem to be in the scenes almost as an afterthought.  I have no idea how much of the original Kazakh film, if any, was cut for the American release, so some of my disappointment here might be due to editing for American distribution rather than the original script.

Ultimately where the movie fails is in the story.  Oraz develops an annoying tendency to be seen sitting astride his horse on a hillside watching Mansur fulfill his destiny.  When Sharish captures Hocha, he uses her brother's life as leverage to get her to agree to marry him.  Yet after this scene the brother is never mentioned again, even though every time we see Hocha for the next hour, she's in the Jungar camp.  Mansur also is taken prisoner and cannot be executed because he is a descendant of Genghis Kahn.  This is a concept seen in Raiders from the North, which I reviewed last week.  At  one point Mansur is forced to fight an opponent who has never been defeated.  The men fight with chain mail veils so that can't see each other's faces.  It turns out to be someone Mansur knows.  How this person got to the Jungar camp and is fighting for them is never explained.  It should be, because this is a major break with how this character has been established.

But the main thing that ruined the story for me was the weak ending.  Determined to smash the Kazakhs once and for all, the entire Jungar army lays siege to Turkestan.  The battle starts promisingly enough, but then the voice-over says the siege lasts on the order of 100 days.  Yet no climactic battle is shown, just a montage of images resulting in the Jungars taking to their horses and riding away pursued by the surviving Kazakhs.  After all the cool fight scenes, talk about an anticlimax.

What would have been better would have been for Mansur to begin to unite the tribes but end the movie with his escape from the Jungars.  That aspect of the prophecy was never really developed, and different tribesmen just kind of stagger in without having much of a noticeable effect.  And how they get through the siege of Turkestan is taken for granted.  Splitting the story would have been more logical.  Sure it would have involved another movie, and more expense, but the story would have been better served.  That way, the final defeat of teh Jungars could have been given a proper treatment.

I had to do an internet search to find a listing of the cast.  The film only gave the actors' names, not the roles they played.  On one site I found a note that the dialogue in the English version, which is what I watched, departed significantly from the English subtitles in the Kazakh version.  I'll probably go back and watch that version sometime soon.  In spite of its flaws, Nomad the Warrior is a film I'm more than willing to see again, if only for the vistas of the steppes, the music, and the combat scenes.