The Lord of Castle Black – Steven Brust – Repost Review

TLDR: Even if this one is pretty good, I have lost all patience with the Dragaera Cycle.

It’s difficult to read Steven Brust’s books at all now–even ones I previously loved liked found okay, like Issola and the very first Jhereg–because now I know the dirty secret. He’s not interested in his own story, his own universe, or making it all fit together. Dragaera isn’t a tightly-woven narrative tapestry, it’s a collection of very bright and colorful threads in a loose knot. Now and then Brust may tug a couple of threads taut, just to show off how shiny and pretty those strands are. But there’s no overall, well-thought out picture that can be salvaged from the tangle at this point (well, not without extreme and conscientious effort which I highly doubt will be made).

Brust’s interest in Dragaera lies in…I can’t say the characters, because he seems painfully uninterested in them, but he does like gourmet food, philosophical digressions (AKA, why socialism is good and mafia aren’t), and….I guess, Devera. And this is a problem, because klava and gourmand fried chocolate-dipped garlic and roast asafoedita-stuffed dormouse have left enough of a bad taste in my mouth that even after reading half of this book and enjoying it, I was extremely reluctant to pick it up again–and I still can’t bring myself to actually read The Baron of Magister Valley (AKA, The Count of Monte Cristo IN DRAGAERA.) Why should I read a book in a series that the author doesn’t even want to finish and doesn’t like any more? Why should I expect to be pleasantly entertained when that’s not the purpose of the story, anymore? Why read a well-written and enjoyable prequel to a series that the author doesn’t want to finish?

Brust does not want to tell stories about swashbuckling but hard-edged heroes, noble but ruthless warriors, sorcerers who are as powerful as gods, and gods who are as petty as men. He doesn’t want to tell a story of criminals or of empires, rebels or righteous war. He doesn’t really care about excitement any more, and adventures are downright distasteful. Much better to drink egg coffee in a corner cafe. His stories are the stories of an old man who shares little in common with his younger self (who at least tried), or with younger audiences (who came on board for the swashbuckling, capeswishing, rapier-flashing, epic fantasy stories written on a narrative backdrop that is a richly-woven tapestry, etc…AKA, people like me who stuck it out for fifteen books but have at this point noticed which way the wind blows.)

That said, and with it in mind, Brust is at his best when he’s riffing off a better author and doesn’t have to come up with those tedious narrative beats himself. As in Paths of the Dead, which I own but haven’t read in several years, this is one of those instances.

This subseries is a prequel to the main Vlad Taltos books, covering the fall and rise again of the Dragaeran Empire. It’s also a riff off of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers–D’Artagnan, Portos, Aramis, and, uh, whats-his-face, Oliver Reed played him in the movie…whatever–becoming Khaavren (the main hero), Tazendra (the dumb but loveable ruffian), Aramis (the sneaky Yendi), and…I dunno, the other guy. (WHAT IS HIS NAAAAME?!) So, I had it wrong, this is actually book 2 of a sub-trilogy within the Khaavren Romances subseries of the Dragaera Cycle. Eh, whatever.

The plot is: Khaavren, formerly the swashbuckling hero of a previous generation, has decided that he needs to get back in shape and take to the road again. His timing is good, because meanwhile, Zerika has re-emerged with the Orb from the Paths of the Dead–making her indisputably the new Empress. Problem is, there really is a dispute going on, because there are at least two pretenders to the throne, and they have quite a few more men than she does. (She’s got about twenty-five, including Khaavren’s son Piro). Meanwhile, young Dragonlord Morrolan has set up shop in a ruined castle and begun doing what he is assured Dragonlords do, which tax the local civilians and use the money to assemble an army. He’s got about three thousand soldiers. Meanwhile, immortal sorceress Sethra Lavode is…well, she’s in her mountain doing whatever she does that is of deep mystic import and is never actually explained to the audience. And, since this is book 2 of 3-ish, that’s about it. There’s a couple of battles but they don’t resolve the Pretendership conflict, and on the personal level, the book ends with a near-tragedy as Khaavren’s old-school values and personal prejudices end up pushing his son away into a life of banditry (whee!)

So the main attraction the Khaavren Romances have is that the writing style, as well as the plot, homages Dumas–that is, it’s wordy, literate, and full of narrative filligree and little stylistic flourishes which ironically help flesh out the world and the characters far, far better than plainer prose. It’s a bit stilted, but it’s charming, often amusing, (“Oh bother,” said Tazendra, “I’ve lost the reins.”) and sometimes actually quite witty. Actual action is treated in classic style: with many flourishes and little detail and as much posturing as is necessary to show our heroes in a heroic light.

The characters are less of an attraction, mostly because they’ve already been established and the narrative convention is to keep them on a bit flatter of an arc than we’d normally see. Mostly the only development is between Piro and his love interest Ibronka, culminating in a highly amusing scene wherein their friends basically lock them in a closet to resolve the UST. Morrolan, the second lead, amusingly gets slighted by the biased narrator, who regards him as an unsophisticated country (human-raised) bumpkin who wavers between dangerously airheaded and just plain dangerous. Needless to say, Morrolan’s actual actions put a lie to everything but the dangerous bit.

So, overall: this is a good book, and it’s part of a series that once showed great promise. Unfortunately, given that the rest of the series fails signally to live up to that….I honestly can’t enjoy it anymore.

Rated: One half-exploded sorceress out of…well…one.

The Shadow #97 – The Voodoo Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_97So having gone on at length as to how Shiwan Khan–who, having a positive gluttony for punishment, just kept coming back to New York to receive his due whalloping for four books in a row–is a decidedly unimpressive supervillain and deserve no such credit as “archrival” or “nemesis,” here is a rundown of the first appearance to a character who does make a worthy rival to The Shadow: Doctor Rodil Mocquino, the Voodoo Master.

In brief, my thesis is: this book is perfectly executed to show that Mocquino is a supremely dangerous, intelligent, ambitious enemy–and that The Shadow is more powerful, insightful, and and deadly than he….while still retaining suspense, interpersonal danger, and plenty of excitement.

The plot begins with the police acquiring a zombi, not that they know what he is exactly or how to spell it. Ace Inspector Cardona, who has something of a clew now and then, calls in Doctor Rupert Sayre–who calls for his sometimes-client, sometimes-superior, Lamont Cranston, whom he believes to be The Shadow. Yes, it’s out of the ordinary for an M.D. to call in a civilian to make a diagnosis, but then Dr. Sayre doesn’t have that much experience with West Indian superstition, crime lords, methods of subtle and unsubtle psychological torture, and fiendish plots.

Our heroes soon learn details of the last item: a voodoo cult in the very heart of New York, figuring highly placed members of society–who have been programmed or lured into observing with fiendish glee the voodoo deaths of their own close relatives, their friends or employers…. deaths in effigy which are soon duplicated mysteriously in the flesh, leaving said cultees in the possession of, often, great wealth. More to the point, the former zombi, Stanton Wallace, fears for the life of his employer, Texan millionaire Dunley Bligh. Bligh’s situation is set up for a pretty seamless murder. He is on board an ocean liner that has already left port, there to receive a consignment of jewels from the ship’s purser; he has heart issues and takes daily medications at a clinical dosage that is just barely below the fatal one.

Observe how there is a greater but currently immobile threat–The Voodoo Master and his ring of minions (currently numbering about twenty. Keep an eye on that number, because it declines over the course of this novel, heh)–and also an innocent in immediate danger, elsewhere. Standard stuff, obvious, sure: but where The Shadow shows his superiority is that he doesn’t rush headlong to the rescue, committing his full strength in one single, less important, direction. (As, for instance, Tarzan, John Carter, Batman, or Feanor would.)

The Shadow has already located the Voodoo Master’s cult headquarters; he leaves it under close observation by his most competent agents (cough, not Harry Vincent, cough.) Mocquino cannot move without this information reaching The Shadow; and via Burbank and a wireless radio, any such move can be traced or countered. While not negated, the greater threat is controlled. This leaves The Shadow clear to move to the rescue of Dunley Bligh. An artificial crisis is not created by having the hero completely withdraw the field and leave the villain free to act.

Needless to say, the other way The Shadow > other heroes is that he also succeeds when he sets out to rescue the innocent bystander. One of the cheesy but utterly endearing parts of the early to mid-stage Shadow novels is the author’s fullhearted intention to make his hero awesome by any means necessary, even if it was offscreen. The Shadow reaches the outbound ocean liner with the cover story of participating in an aeronautic stunt flight to land an autogiro on a moving vessel, and the audience, like Dunley Bligh, learns from the ship’s purser that “The landing was perfect!” Because of course it was. 

Meanwhile, while an artificial crisis has been avoided, a genuine one results: Stanton Wallace sends Cardona and a posse of headquarters detectives into a trap. Doctor Mocquino’s men get the drop on the detectives and hold them at gunpoint just long enough for everyone to evacuate the voodoo cult headquarters.–Just time enough for Hawkeye to put a call into Burbank, and a strange, swift, wingless plane to swing wide of the Newark airport and drop a passenger off on a rooftop (the landing, again, perfect, although we don’t get to see how well Miles Crofton handles the take-off. Honestly, poor Crofton has like the most thankless job of all The Shadow’s agents, considering how he gets shown up almost every time he’s on screen.)

The Shadow manages to save Cardona and the detectives (remember: not like other heroes), and to thin out Mocquino’s minions–but, the Voodoo Master manages to completely vanish.

This section of the novel is where Mocquino begins to show his own quality–by managing his disappearing act in the first place, smoothly enough that the police never do figure it out; by continuing on the offensive and defensive;  and by maintaining enough firepower to continue to be a threat, even to The Shadow and his agents.

Doctor Mocquino traces the source of the leak to his organization backwards–to Stanton Wallace–but also forwards, placing preemptive countermeasures in the house of the next most likely cultist to be spotted and interrogated by either the police or The Shadow. What’s more, those countermeasures are effective. (Mind you, if Dr. Sayre had more experience at the spy game, and Sergeant Markham wasn’t a moron, Mocquino would have had much less success. Alas. Note, however, that Cardona is allowed to show his intelligence by calling Markham out for the blockhead he is.)

Anyhow, the tension remains high, because The Shadow is physically injured while making his escape, and Doctor Sayre’s combination of over-caution and inexperience prevents him from taking the correct measures. Also, (sigh) Harry Vincent has walked directly into a trap along with Stanton Wallace and needs to be rescued, but never mind. You’d think that these are straits dire enough in themselves, but no: Mocquino continues on the offensive, sending minions to capture Doctor Sayre (they escape with their lives only because The Shadow is too physically weak to pursue them, and are terrified by the notion that an actual sorcerer ghost is after them.)

“The Shadow is not human!” he gasped. “He is what I say—a ghost! Bullets pass through him like a vapor! We do not doubt your power, master. But The Shadow, too, has power—”
Manuel was nodding. Arilla kept on: “At the old house!” he panted. “I have talked with those who fought there. No bullets could harm The Shadow! He advanced in the face of guns! At Rathcourt’s—I have talked with Manuel—let him speak—”
“I saw The Shadow at Rathcourt’s,” put in Manuel, promptly. “I saw guns pointed toward his heart. I saw those weapons fired. One would have thought that the cartridges were blank—”
“And to-day,” added Arilla, “I fired point-blank. My aim was perfect! My bullet did not even stop The Shadow’s laugh!”
Mocquino was glowering. Sayre, turning, saw the fearful expressions on the faces of the Voodoo Master’s minions. Harry and Stanton were looking on, elated. Sayre saw a chance for a conclusive statement.
“They are right, Mocquino,” expressed the physician. “Scientifically and from a medical standpoint, The Shadow is superhuman.”

And while this doesn’t fool Mocquino for more than a few minutes, there’s a wonderful moment where he’s definitely worried.

Anyhow: the plot therefore continues to a satisfactory climax, with another voodoo ritual upcoming and Harry Vincent and Stanton Wallace making guest appearances therein; with the police still officially and unofficially at a complete loss; and with The Shadow’s remaining agents also definitely worried about their chief’s physical ability to participate in the upcoming fight. 

(Mind you, Doctor Mocquino has now lost so many minions he can’t afford to post an outside guard. Heh.)

And so it goes.

I’m all out of things to say, but it’s one of the best. Even if the guy on the cover does look like he got stung by a bee.

QuikReview: Oblivion (2013)

So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.

Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)

Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.

What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….

Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.

And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?

And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.

Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.

Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and  it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!

The Shadow Magazine #14 – Hidden Death

15469463An unexpected haul led me to begin my physical collection of The Shadow novels with Hidden Death, first published in 1932 and then reprinted in 1970, if you couldn’t tell by the swoopy block print.

As indicated, this is a very early Shadow story, and it has some iconic sequences, not to mention the very first appearance of the brisk, brusque, bull-headed Commissioner Ralph Weston and Commissioner Weston’s unique weakness for the theories of “crime experts.” There’s a mad scientist, murders on schedule, and what might be the first instance of gangdom waging all-out war against their greatest foe, united despite their standing feuds by the sinister rallying cry, “Death to The Shadow!”

So, great stuff, obviously.

As mentioned, this book begins with the introduction of Commissioner Weston, first seen grilling Joe Cardona on his seeming overreliance on hard evidence over theory to solve crimes….when in fact he, Cardona, relies heavily on the outlandish theory of a man in black appearing to give aid when needed and vanishing mysteriously afterwards! Why, it’s absurd! Weston demands that Cardona henceforth accept theories only from established experts, such as the his friend the eminent Professor Fredericks (and also stop following his own theories aka Joe’s celebrated “hunches.”) Anyhow, such is the state of affairs when Cardona produces a letter announcing the death of “S.H.”–“HE WAS THE FIRST.”

S. H. is soon discovered to be Silas Harshaw, an eccentric inventor who was having money troubles, somewhat related to his inability to surrender details of his plans to investors, but also partially related to being an eccentric crank. The fact that he was found shot to death inside a locked room on the tenth floor is negated by the presence of a large window, reachable by ladder from the lower floors. Cardona’s theories (and Professor Fredericks’) center on a burglary motive, possibly featuring Harshaw’s recently-discharged servant.

Except that the next intruder is found lying dead in the exact same spot, and detectives on guard report the escape of a dark-clad figure that went through their ranks like a hurricane. And then, forty-eight hours after the first death was discovered, another letter arrives, announcing the death of another set of initials: “HE WAS THE SECOND.” The corresponding death is soon discovered. And so it continues.

Poor Cardona is left with not a lot of facts and much theorizing to do. Who is posting the letters from the hotel when every postbox from the tenth floor down is being watched? Who is arranging these fiendish deaths? What could possibly be their connection? With even the Professorial expert stymied, it seems as though the police are powerless to find and stop these hidden deaths! Someone is on track to figure it all out, though….guess who.

The early Shadow spent a lot of time mixing it with street-level crime and this is no exception, albeit that the gangster angle is wrapped up in the middle of the novel and so eliminates an angle of mystery.  Still, there is an incredible sequence where the crooks make a bold and simple plan: to lure The Shadow into their hideout, a basement with one door off a blind alley with none…after first tipping off every gat-wielder and smoke-wagon toter in town to be there, waiting. Harry Vincent unwittingly sends his chief into a trap but is too late to warn him away! (Because, duh, Harry Vincent.) Danger lurks in every street corner and doorway! Death to The Shadow!

Except that, in an all-things-awesome reversal, The Shadow–simply by way of being cautious, stealthy, and the utterly fearless master of darkness–discovers the cordon, bypasses it without being spotted, and commences to shoot it out with not only the crooks he needs to question, but the entire army of the underworld as well when it comes barging in. And escapes (almost) unscathed with the information he wanted. Because he’s just. that. awesome. Any future movie adaptation is going to have to pick and choose between what elements from what books it wants to to adapt, as 1990s movie obviously did between the four Shiwan Khan stories. For my money, any adaptation worth its salt is going to need to include this scene. (I would also want the opening interview from Spoils of The Shadow.)

Obviously a lot of what The Shadow can do is informed by Walter B. Gibson’s background as a stage magician, and this is one of the stellar examples. The Shadow has a full bag of tricks to distract and mislead, including one that involves propping up his cloak and hat with extensible rods while crouching beneath them that would frankly be kind of terrifying if witnessed in real life. This being an earlier Shadow novel, he uses quite a few guises, and doesn’t solely rely on the Lamont Cranston identity, which is only used briefly. He remains an almost-unseen figure even to the forces of good that he aids (Commissioner Weston in particular remains stubbornly unconvinced as to his existence, even after having been held at gunpoint in this book by The Shadow. It’s to save his life, never mind.)

That being said, the Shadow also never shies away from boasting of his prowess and presence….and he always laughs last. The Black Falcon ends with the (dead) Falcon left hooded and jessed for the police to find just as a final F-U from The Shadow, who has to pause whilst making his escape in order to set it up. The Plot Master ends with the jet black king chessman standing supreme and alone over the cityscape chessboard, all other pieces fallen. Hidden Death, with its gloating letters celebrating the murders of innocent men, finds the fifth and final letter headed by a declaration in brilliant blue ink that vanishes before it can be read again: Annulled. By the Shadow.

Which also allows me to wrap up this review simply.

Rated: Approved. By Riders.

ReReview: Tactics of Mistake – Gordon R. Dickson

tctcsfmstb1981Trouble not the scholar among his books, for if he also has a pulse rifle and jump troopers, Mark V underwater bulldozer tanks, favorable local terrain, and an incompetent commander, he can make things very hot for you indeed.

So, the book begins with the introduction of Cletus Grahame, a new-bird Colonel with three months’ active duty under his belt–and a Medal of Honor–testing out theories for the fourth volume of his series on tactical applications. He plans on writing twenty of them. He does not explicitly plan on becoming the founding father to a nation of warrior gods, but, y’know, sometimes things just kinda happen….

This book is about his manipulations of the socioeconomic and social cosmos to provide both the material for his next sixteen volumes, and to guarantee that they will be used and read…by people who can use them and know how to read them. Cletus Grahame’s goal is to create a world of people who can think thoughts the same way he can does, fight the same way he fights, and plan the same way he plans. A world of warrior-scholars, invincible.

Yep, quite an ambition. No, no one else takes him seriously either….until he starts winning.

What’s the secret? Quite simple, really. Cletus’ titular tactics are a way of applying tactical logic to a broader strategic goal. It’s pulled from Scaramouche’s game-breaking fencing strategy–engage your enemy in a series of conflicts, not with the aim of scoring a kill on any of these, but simply to focus his mind on those engagements while simultaneously drawing him further and further out of his defenses–until you have prepared the strike. Yeah, it takes a damn’ good fencer and a damn good general. You have one guess as to what Cletus is. (Hint: he’s the protagonist.)

The overwhelming question I am left with is: why? Why Cletus? Why Dow deCastries? What the heck is the Alliance or the Coalition? Or Earth? Why are the Neumann colonists attacking, anyway, that the Exotics need to hire mercenaries? I don’t think I’m being unfair to point out that the worldbuilding isn’t all that great. So that’s a small mark against it. Mind you, most people aren’t reading the book for details on imaginary history or clever linguistics. They’re in it for the Mil-SF action, and this is one of the classics for a reason.

I may have mentioned this in the Necromancer review, but Gordon R. Dickson is one of my own personal Big Three SF authors. I read his stuff extensively and absorbed a lot of his characteristic tropes. The loner hero–who is not alone because of some personality quirk, but because he holds an identity or point of view entirely separate from the rest of humanity. The Leader who can impose his will on others because he combines the intelligence and erudition of a scholar, a warrior’s martial prowess, a poet’s eye, and a psychologist’s ability to understand and exploit of human nature. The Danger: Human attitude–that there is nothing in the cosmos so great as a human, and no force on Earth or among the stars that can can stop a Man who has accepted its challenge.

All of these are showcased in this book, and it’s a damn good book.

(Now I kinda want to read the crossover fanfic, terrible as it inevitably will be, of Cletus Grahame and Lelouch vi Britannia playing chess together. Or perhaps rock-paper-scissors (jumptrooper-mecha-dropship? Ohhhh boy, I wonder what havoc Miles Vorkosigan could wreak if he went up against Cletus. Or worse…if they joined forces….)

Other notes:

– Cletus spends considerable time of this book passed out.

– Cletus is kind of a smug bastard, isn’t he?

Rated: Soldier, ask not. Especially for more jump troopers.

The Shadow Magazine #192 – The Invincible Shiwan Khan

shadow_magazine_vol_1_193So….

I have thus far been highly and remarkably unimpressed with Shiwan Khan. In each of three outings so far, he’s had a predictable pattern: 1) arrive in New York, purpose: World Domination! 2) hypnotize white American girl into thinking she’s Chinese and serving as his messenger, 3) attempt to bribe, steal, or inveigle goods or services that, WITH YOUR LIMITLESS ORIENTAL WEALTH OF MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS YOU COULD VERY WELL HAVE LEGITIMATELY PURCHASED, HELLO, 4) get caught by The Shadow, 5) run away like a little bitch.

The pattern gets set in The Golden Master, Shiwan Khan’s first appearance, and I mentioned how underwhelming an antagonist he was there. It’s reinforced in Shiwan Khan Returns, the ending of which features the Kha Khan completely failing to accomplish anything except the manufacture and theft of a piecemeal helicopter, which he uses to, as previously indicated, run away with his tail between his legs. The pattern continues in The Invincible Shiwan Khan, although it does get switched up somewhat with the addition of Dr. Roy Tam and the likes of Vic Marquette. Shiwan Khan also switches tactics yet again from using flashing lights or even distinctive sounds as a method of mental resonance for contacting his victims. Now he uses…smells. Yeah, smells. Seriously.

Yes, Shiwan Khan–with his ability to telepathically overwhelm weak or unprepared minds–is personally dangerous. But when what he’s up against is The Shadow he’s also just….so damn outclassed. He’s rather pathetic and I’m not sure how this guy ended up as “The Shadow’s greatest archenemy.” I mean, aside from Walter B. Gibson hyping it up on purpose. It really doesn’t come across nearly so well when an author deliberately writes a character to be The Archenemy, honest-to-whiskers it’s gonna be so awesome when they meet next time!!!….as when it happens naturally. One feels that Doctor Moquino was a bit more of a natural case, because each time when he died, it was with an appropriate sense of “I shot him and he fell into a river, off an exploding barge,” or, “I shot him a bunch and left him inside an inescapable death maze of a house, which exploded.” And finally, “I shot him a bunch AND saw him fall down a bottomless fissure into a cavern that has no exits or way back up.” At least those deaths weren’t punctuated with breathlessly smug narrator informing us that Shiwan Khan would meet his fate! One of these days. Next volume. Somewhere along the road. Also, Doctor Moquino didn’t ever cut and run: he stayed to fight it out each time, which, y’know, I can respect.

All that being said, Shiwan Khan actually does manage to escape with his life, though this is not  particularly impressive (see: “like a little bitch”); and he does take a bunch of unwitting victims along with him. Part of this is lies with the fact that The Shadow of the 1940s is no longer the invincible, unknowable, alien figure of dread, bravura, and the night itself. Apparently, the editorial decision was made to tone him down and make him more….unimpressive. He still wields .45s, but now he largely “clips” thugs (Thuggees?) rather than dropping them; and that’s when he’s not just pistol-whipping them instead. His laugh tends to be more of a narrative device, not to mention a long-range communication method (no, seriously), than a genuine expression of challenging, or ironic, blood-thirsty, or ghoulish mirth.  Almost all of the clever/mastermind-level crooks have identified Lamont Cranston with The Shadow, even if they don’t really know the whole secret of that particular dual identity. And it takes him two whole minutes to wrestle a naljorpa into submission.

While The Shadow does outwit and outmaneuver Shiwan Khan at every step of the way (except the steps that involve not sending Harry Vincent to uncover vital information), he also misses his shot by a fraction of an inch due to (I am not making this up) the oriental fiend’s cunning construction of his new Throne Room as a slant-floored funfair-type crazy room. (That being said, an inferior Shadow is still superior to basically any other hero out there, because he still retains the essence of his character: knowing at least as much as the audience does, and pure, raw, undiluted will.)

Anyhow. Plot. 1) Shiwan Khan arrives back in New York, now styling himself Shiwan Tulku and while still employing what’s left of his Mongol horde, now also assisted by a gaggle of skeletal Tibetan naljorpas, mystics who have seen The Other Side and are now amply content to pass the veil of this life for the next. He intends on 2) stealing, not riches or weapons, but people this time. 3) Shiwan Khan hypnotically recruits Lana Luan (nee: Beatrice Chadbury, and yes, he takes the same frikking girl under control as his pawn again), to serve as a messenger. Which promptly leads to 4), because you do not mess with people whom The Shadow has rescued.

I mean, aside from Harry Vincent: professional rescuee.

Anyhow, 4) continues with The Shadow deftly outmaneuvering Shiwan Khan’s first attempt to eliminate him and also exposes him–and an inkling of his methods–to the New York City police. Commissioner Weston, once convinced, promptly calls in the FBI. The Shadow susses out Shiwan Khan’s new game–luring suitable disciples with the promise of their uttermost desires in Xanadu, a city the likes of which Shangri-La has got nothing on–and, while losing the requisite Random Mad Inventor, gets a bead on Lana Luan and a direct line to whatever Shiwan Khan’s next move is going to be.

Part of the reason Shiwan Khan is just, as mentioned, so damn outclassed is The Shadow’s organization. We’ve seen his agents–Moe, Hawkeye, Burbank, Cliff Marsland, Jericho Druke and (sigh) Harry Vincent–at work so many times before. We’ve seen them respond instantly to a low-toned whisper in the dark, seen them fling themselves into hopeless danger with only the trust in the mighty fighter who is their chief to rescue them, seen them lay down enfilade fire and rally to the mysterious blinks of a tiny, changing light. We know how well the team works, and here, they’re a well-oiled machine, amply aided by Dr. Roy Tam and his modernized Chinese-Americans. (Yat Soon, the Arbiter, one surmises, has been forgotten or perhaps has joined his ancestors.)

There’s also, because wouldn’t it come in useful if there was someone we could use as bait for the guy who likes to hypnotize beautiful women into thinking they’re Chinese and using them as minions, the linguistically-gifted Myra Reldon, an FBI asset. Myra has popped up before, generally with the alias of Ming Dwan and yellow-toned pancake makeup, in various ventures in which The Shadow plays a starring role. The adventures she experienced make her someone who responds instantly when a note arrives, written in fading ink and showing for a crest and signature the fleeting outline of a hawklike profile, topped with a broad slouch hat! (A previous volume shows that The Shadow producing the effect by twisting his hands together in a strange, supple fashion. Which, well. Okay, that is kind of cool. Do Deformed Rabbit now.)

Anyhow. Lana Luan is neutralized and Ming Dwan placed as a mole inside Shiwan Khan’s organization, The Shadow maps out the entire underground lair and the FBI is notified. Vic Marquette, who has worked with (for) The Shadow before, obeys implicitly. Dr. Roy Tam’s organization provides cover (dragons make everything awesome), and the countertrap is faultlessly sprung! However, since we are only at about 70% of the way through the novel, something is bound to go wrong and it promptly does with the aforementioned funhouse trick throne room and then, also, a firebomb.

And so on until we get to 5) which, dude, really….how can you say The Shadow–who had plenty of time to map out the entirety of the evil headquarters–seriously didn’t take thirty seconds more to stick his head inside the throne room itself? But anyhow, there’s also the matter of Harry Vincent still stuck aboard a yacht along with lots of other innocent (dumb) people who stopped to sniff the roses….

So it ends, rather frustratingly, with 6) the rather unenthusiastic promise that Shiwan Khan will return and This Time it’ll be the last one.

One would hope so, anyway.

Anyhow.

I don’t really feel like discussing how the 1990s movie pulled its ideas really heavily from the Shiwan Khan arc and this story in particular (there’s a phurba in this one, but it is actually given its deadly ability via a trick mummy case and a really skinny guy hiding in back…)

Rated: Fractions of an inch won’t cut it. Kill him already!

The Shadow Magazine #30 – The Death Giver

shadow_magazine_vol_1_30The earlier Shadow is much more a powerful figure of mystery and grandeur, not revealing his true face even to the audience, defeating his opponents coolly, rescuing innocents with swift and awesome competence. Yeah, that means mostly rescuing mostly Harry Vincent, but still…

Story-wise, with The Shadow still a relatively new figure in the underworld, underworld players have not quite yet figured out the correct or necessary countermeasures, i.e., overwhelming firepower, manpower, and muzzlepower. And–this may be an unintentionally brilliant writing strategy, too–the earlier years of The Shadow’s anti-crime reign of terror feature a lot more small-time evil masterminds than the later ones…possibly because The Shadow weeding out the smaller ones left room for the big guys to expand into. Doctor Moquino mentally enslaves wealthy socialites and manipulates them into voluntarily parting with their entire wealth. The Death Giver wants….one. million. dollars., and is none too organized about getting it.

So! Death has struck twice on a commuter train: random people, same place, same time, no suspects, and no detectible cause of death save for traces of poisons and traces of burns somehow occurring unobserved on a crowded morning train. The police are baffled. Commissioner Weston is no less baffled than Detective Joe Cardona, but his higher rank means that at least he has someone else to shove in front of the firing squad of public opinion when, as they inevitably do, the deaths keep coming.

Meanwhile we are introduced to a random millionaire businessman, who has been receiving mysterious notes on postcard. Deciphered, they are a death threat and a warning not to call the police. Except that he does, whereupon his crooked butler toggles a switch that makes his own telephone electrocute him. So now he’s dead and there’s no way to get one. million. dollars. out of him. (The Death Giver, as I have mentioned in previous reviews, is kind of unhinged and frankly also pathetic.) –especially as now The Shadow has sniffed out a new threat, and is on the trail. Except that the crooked butler, mad with terror both of the far-reaching grasp of his true master and the black-cloaked shape looming like Death itself actually in the room right now, snatches madly for what he thinks is a weapon given him by said master….and is promptly killed by it. Leaving no forward trail for The Shadow.

Whilst this thread has been unravelling, the Death Giver’s actually trusted lieutenant has scoped out another potential millionaire victim for the scheme of terror, threats, and eventual death. The Death Giver gives only one reward–whether they succeed or not. 

 And so it goes. 

(Another trick of the early books is that sometimes The Shadow never appears “on camera” at all.–later on, Gibson abandoned the idea, but he at first hinted that The Shadow’s true face was horribly disfigured to the point of not being there. In this book, he does appear to several characters, but his face remains hidden behind his high cloak collar and broad-brimmed hat. When he takes them off, he’s disguised as someone else. He does not use any of his established alter egos in this story, visit the Cobalt Club, or hang out with the Commissioner, either. It’s all business, darkness, vengeance, the gaping muzzle of an enormous automatic, and the trailing echoes of sardonic, ghoulish laughter.)

As mentioned, this is a book fairly light on minions (because they keep killing themselves off) and while there are no all-against-one gun battles or even The Shadow’s signature “leap into a crowd of thugs and start pistol-whipping them” tactic, there’s plenty of high stakes, fast movement, and stuff blowing up. This is one of the stories where The Shadow, ultimately, doesn’t really run into any genuine setbacks (bar having to rush to a location and pull Harry Vincent out of the blast zone), doesn’t make any mistakes, outmaneuvers the villains effortlessly, and, overall, hardly seems to exert himself.

And it’s still awesome, because Walter B. Gibson was just that clever. Gibson never fell into the trap of writing The Shadow as conveniently only slightly more powerful than his current batch of enemies. His power level, intelligence, and ferocity never varies. Sometimes the going is harder, because he’s up against someone with comparable intelligence, or comparable attack, or who can afford more than two minions at a time–and sometimes, well, it’s isn’t. The Shadow always throws himself fully into whatever he’s doing; he’s always fully engaged, always using his full power, mental and physical, to battle against evil.

And the evil always loses.

So the Death Giver himself, despite his evil lair with an agonized living corpse in a glass coffin set in the floor, and (in lieu of a trick floor, because, duh, I have my centerpiece there) trick ceiling, and also a pair of large black retainers, because what evil mastermind’s lair is complete without a couple of big guys just standing around, providing cannon fodder?–is unhinged, and, honestly, my reaction to this story was and remains “squidge him out like a bug.” He is, it transpires, a former chemist specializing in poison gases whose work was rejected by the American government, and who took that rejection very much to heart. Also, he needed money in a bad way. I’m not sure how these two circumstances lead to “imprisoning a man in the floor and starving / poisoning him to death slowly over months” but there you go.

The cover seems to show The Shadow’s agents, but I’m blowed if I can match who any of them are except Cliff Marsland on the right. I’m guessing that’s Burbank in the very back, because he takes after the chief in also liking to hide his face, but if the top hat guy is Rutledge Mann, he’s not chubby enough, and is the blond one Clyde Burke? So who is the second from the left dude?

Rated: I’m with the guy who stomps out criminals like the vermin they are.

Readlist Rundown: old friends

(In between The Shadow pulps, naturally. I’m at #189 and counting.)

– The Book of Dreams – Jack Vance. This may have been my very first Vance novel, and as such it’s a great introduction; it’s one of his very most Vancian. That being said, it’s not the very best Demon Princes novel, and as the capstone to the pentalogy, it rather pales in comparison with its predecessor, The Face.

– The Old Gods Waken – Manly Wade Wellman. Dude, you spent an entire book building up to the climactic confrontation and fight, and then solved it by accident in a single paragraphWhat the hell?

– Warriors of Blood and Dream – various, edited by Roger Zelazny. This is an anthology of martial arts stories, of various genres and styles, and also of quality. Some of them are actually quite good–the Monkey King’s grandson accidentally ussuring Communism into China, for one; and the final story, wherein a dead and dreaming monster from the city of the Anasazi, the ancient enemy ones, awakens in the present day. (That one ran over its allotted length and you can kind of see exactly when the author checked his pages, winced, and started typing faster. Still quite good.)

– The Prince Commands – Andre Norton. I love this book. It’s a perfect little example of its kind, and if I knew any kids that would read it, I’d buy extra copies for them. (None of the brats I know would read it or even be allowed to, so….)

– Sleepwalker’s World – Gordon R. Dickson. This one starts off very strongly indeed, but Dickson decided to swing away from hard-edged scifi of the sort that did his protagonists well in Wolfling and On Messenger Mountain, in favor of a more psychedelic style….and, unfortunately, stays there. Which is a pity, because he had a really great setup and, frankly, the talking telepathic timber wolf was awesome.

The Shadow Magazine #186 – City of Ghosts

shadow_magazine_vol_1_186Oddly enough, The Shadow’s real nemeses aren’t the fiendish and dastardly masterminds that spring up, have grandiose nicknames that are not nearly as impressive as they think they are (see: The Death Giver and The Python), commanding heaps upon heaps of minions ready to positively leap into the fray against a cackling black-clad figure with two .45s. You’d think that after a while the supply of such minions would lessen, but, well, whatever.

As it turns out, The Shadow’s real and most highly persistent struggles are with: a) standing with his back to open doors and/or windows, and b) country bumpkins with shotguns. No, really, he tends to have genuine trouble with country boys, since they generally aren’t dyed-in-the-wool crooks who already know, fear, and dread the dimmest inkling of his presence. He can’t and won’t shoot innocents, even to spare his own life; and they tend to have numbers, shotguns, and a good reason for aiming both of them towards the nearest and most likely target….which is generally The Shadow, standing between them and the actual bad guys.

Also: it is a truth universally acknowledged that you have Made It as a pulp hero when you have defeated a giant reptile in its own habitat. Tarzan managed it in his thirdmost book, going knife-to-snout with a giant crocodile in the depths of a Deepest African River. The Shadow does similar here, only with the sensible aid of a .45 and also using a wooden post to jam into its mouth while he delivers the killing shots. Come to think of it, though, The Shadow also has previously fought and defeated Koon Woon (giant python) in #137 – Grove of Doom, so that should also count. Admittedly, that is a sample size of two here, but they’re both iconic heroes, so my point stands. If anyone has other instance of pulp heroes fighting giant reptiles, send ’em in.

So.

City of Ghosts begins with a visit by Lamont Cranston (wearing his real estate investor hat) to the extremely depopulated Pomelo City–a place so plagued by bad luck, ill fortune, mysterious plagues, and the extremely localized reappearance of the otherwise-extinct Florida black wolf (seriously, heh)–that only three men remain in the town itself, under the literal gaze of a flock of buzzards, even. Outside of town, there’s a lone big-money rancher, Clenwick, who has taken over the mortgages of many other cattlemen in the area, and only one family of any importance: the Severns. The Severns’ mortgage is also held by Clenwick, but he….lives with them and pays them rent? Or something. And there’s a bunch of ranch hands and country bumpkins (“crackers”) living in the vicinity, too, but they don’t, y’know, count except when it comes to screaming and shooting wildly at things. More on this later.

The remaining three townsmen shortly becomes two after the introduction of a mob crew hiding out in a dilapidated gas station, working for a shifty character named Enwald. There’s also another mob crew, one which works for Tony Belgo, a New Yorker in search of a better business opportunities. Ones that are less…shadowy, you might say.

This also introduces the crackers-with-shotguns angle, as a couple carloads of them come rolling into town just as The Shadow has burst out of a burning building and sledges down a couple of baddies–and it also introduces a central conceit of this novel, which is that The Shadow becomes very, very firmly identified in everybody’s mind as an actual ghost, appearing briefly and then blending weirdly with the roiling smoke and the darkness of night.

Back to the plot: the remaining (two) townsmen actually have a workable plan for developing a local spring into a tourist attraction: a beautiful area with a rock fall and pool where, once, a mighty warrior sacrificed himself by diving into the water below.

Meanwhile, Lamont Cranston saves young Laura Severn from a giant, man-eating-sized alligator. This gets him into the Severn / Clenwick household, where he is introduced to her wheelchair-bound, embittered brother, Roger. He is also able to witness the ingress of Enwald to the group. Enwald, it transpires, is looking for and/or connected with “Terry Knight,” a Texan wildcatter who briefly passed through the area and then moved on, address unknown, current location unknown, status unknown. (He dead, Jim.)

The Shadow–despite sussing out the true players and angles here–is operating single-handed here, and between the ranch hands opening fire whenever they see him, the crackers opening fire (while screaming in superstitious horror) whenever they see him, and the mobsters opening fire (while screaming in entirely reasonable terror) whenever they see him, he’s got his work cut out for him.

An interesting part of this novel–note cover–is the use of fire, somewhat more consistently (thematically?) than other books. The Shadow is first revealed as “the ghost” via a building fire. Later on, he lights a brush fire, only to be revealed again by its light and (remember those screaming crackers with shotguns?) forced to take on the semblance of the legendary Seminole ghost warrior by diving into the rock pools below. But this isn’t where it finishes. There is an all-things-awesome scene later on in the novel, when, during the climactic battle, The Shadow is outnumbered and under hard-pressed retreat. Suddenly, his foes to draw up in baffled shock: he has vanished utterly, black garb shrouding him invisibly on the ash-covered ground burnt by the wildfire. More, as the climax to that final battle, he ignites the slime-filled giant sinkhole with a flare–revealing that it is filled with, not stagnant water, but oil–reason enough for….but that would be telling.

What’s more, this story has somewhat more heart than the usual. Lamont Cranston’s befriending of the winsome blonde isn’t unusual, as he’s always been a (calm, indifferent) charmer; it’s his brief relationship with the crippled Roger Severn that really gains importance.

They were almost at the glen, when Roger broke loose with a bitter outburst that proved a real index to his mood.
“Everybody lets me down,” he grumbled. “Clenwick talked about sending me to a New York specialist, but he’s been too busy to attend to it. Cranston handed me a lot of soft soap that I might have believed, if he hadn’t shown himself a fool, last night.
“He said I’d forgotten how to walk; that if I made up my mind to it, I’d be on my feet again. He said if I couldn’t do it on my own, he’d shock me into it. He argued that the strength of my arms proved that my legs were strong, too.
“So why should you have the weeps? Cranston didn’t promise you anything, then let you down, Laura. But he did just that to me.”

But it soon transpires that The Shadow is as good as his word, and the audience is able to witness an embittered, damaged, helpless young man redeem himself, make amends to his remaining family–and, indirectly, help save the city of ghosts from the man who would make it a city of the dead!

Not bad for a story that’s all of seventy-odd pages long and eighty-three years old.

Rated: I see a knight of ghosts and shadows–I see a soul of iron and flame–

The Shadow Magazine #182 – The Golden Master

shadow_magazine_vol_1_182So among The Shadow aficionados, Shiwan Khan and the stories featuring him are said to be considered among the best of the best–the most challenging villain, the most evocative plots, the most deadly escapades. Shiwan Khan was the only villain to return four times in different novels (Diamond Bert Farwell returned twice, and Doctor Moquino, three.) He’s iconic enough that the 1991 movie cribbed heavily from his stories–including this one–for material.

The only problem is, Shiwan Khan’s introduction is distinctly underwhelming. Shiwan Khan himself is introduced appropriately, built up in standard style, shown to have both a grandiose aim (world rulership, naturally) and practical vision for attaining it (munitions and airplanes), and a deadly and mysterious ace in the hole (the ability to telepathically control certain people in certain circumstances.) He has minions galore, including his own trick taxicab ring. The thing is….

….there’s never really a sense of threat to him.

Possibly, this is a factor of Shiwan Khan just not scoring a very high body count and holding the city in terror, the way Doctor Moquino did. Or, it could be because The Shadow susses out his main trick and the way to counter it extremely early on in the story. Then, too, Shiwan Khan’s blackmail scheme against the civilian proxy heroes of the novel is shown to be compromised almost immediately after it occurs, diluting that source of danger. And then finally, The Shadow recognizes the true danger of the threat in true Shadow style and responds promptly with every single agent he has or can call on in a pinch. (Minus Miles Crofton, who hasn’t been seen since Shadow over Alcatraz, but, of course, including Harry Vincent. Sigh.)

So. Plot. Shiwan Khan can mentally connect with certain people by using a system of flashing lights to hypnotize them and also himself; while under his control, he can order them to do practically anything–such as alter the contracts for a large shipment of airplanes, and then march out to an unknown location, pick up a gun, and shoot someone.–which is where Paul Brent, the civilian-of-the-novel, finds himself after the sound of a gong breaks his trance. A beautiful girl in Chinese dress takes the gun from him, and he books it without stopping to ask too many questions, such as why her eyes are glazed over. It might as well be revealed now that she is actually Beatrice Chadbury, the missing and hypnotically compelled niece of a wealthy munitions manufacturer, who has a new lamp in the corner of his study, a lamp that sometimes flickers and flashes….

Soon after, The Shadow arrives at the scene of the murder, and after a brief game of cat-and-mouse, gets into a tussle with the Mongol minion who was stationed on site to make sure both of the pawns did what they were actually supposed to. The minion escapes, wounded, and The Shadow makes a quick exit while the cops are flatfooting it up the stairs. The police actually uncover the next clue, while Lamont Cranston loafs around with his buddy the police commissioner: a valuable and rare Asian ruby, which can be traced more immediately back to a reclusive and antisocial collector, Twindell, who has recently begun liquidating his jewelry collection in lieu of ancient, priceless porcelain dragons….sourced from Tibet.

Meanwhile also, mobbie Flash Gidley has acquired a fancy new radio set, with colored lights that flash in a weird, enticing manner….And so it goes, with the caveats that I mentioned before: despite Shiwan Khan’s best efforts, he just doesn’t seem like very much of a threat. He’s the sort of villain who gloats while the going is good and then cuts and runs immediately when it turns against him….which probably does explain why he lives to snivel another day, come to think of it. (Also: he has a swivel mechanism built into his throne, which, PWAH.)

Thing is: The Voodoo Master is a much better story than this, and Doctor Moquino is a stronger villain just on the one-off. Heck, The Crime Master was a better villain than this, and he was basically Dark Helmet playing with his dolls. The way to be a dangerous villain in The Shadow stories is a) to have an impregnable base (note: underground bases are actually more likely to be invaded and destroyed than skyscraper-based ones), b) to have a large enough organization to afford to take massive casualties, c) to be constantly on the aggressive, and d) constantly on the move. The key is forcing The Shadow to defend innocents instead of just tracking you down and shooting you dead, and also staying mobile enough that he doesn’t get a good fix on you and loop the cops in. Shiwan Khan has obviously never read either the Evil Overlord List, or preceding Shadow volumes.

All that being said, this is still a decent mid-tier Shadow story, and there are some additional bits of lore revealed, such as the what’s inside B. Jonas office that The Shadow uses for a contact point, but whose door is cobwebbed shut and which has never been seen to be opened or inhabited. Turns out there’s a secret entrance in the back closet, and The Shadow leaves a spare cloak and slouch hat there so anyone entering will think that they’ve found the way to his sanctum, instead of a mail drop.

Rated: I’m kinda really wanting to get a slouch hat, but….