An honest attempt at an old-school, old-fashioned, worthwhile Western movie, with bad bad guys, good bad guy, good good guy, a kid who has to choose which role model he’s going to follow, and a girl to rescue. And if it had followed through the good guy thing, it would have stuck the landing, too.
Is it a 10/10 movie? No. (It’s an 8.5/10, it’s honestly worth the watch, despite what I’m about to say about it.) There are far too many anachronisms and cringe-inducing dialogue options. But those are honestly the least of this movie’s failings, and the greatest is: failing to understand that there can be more than one hero for whom the audience sympathizes and roots for, and that there is allowed to be more than one triumphant success per a story arc. Ultimately, this movie is about the kid and while he does mature from a frightened boy into a young man over the course of the story, his story beats come at the expense of the actual good guy, Pat Garrett (or the fictional facsimile thereof)
The kids are the protagonists: teenage Rio and his slightly older sister Sara, on the run from their monstrous uncle after Rio kills their father, who has just finished beating their mother to death. Yes, it’s an unpromising beginning, but it gets better. They bump into Billy the Kid and his bunch (good bad guys), who are nice enough to them–Billy in particular easily sussing out that they have some guilt on their consciences and blood on their hands, not to mention clothes–but very shortly after this, Pat Garrett and the posse arrive. After some exchange of gunfire, Billy et al surrender and the kids tag along with the posse to Santa Fe.
This is really the strongest part of the movie, as Garrett and Billy, subtly, vie for Rio’s attention and trust. Billy talks about how people blame other people for things that those people just happened to have done, or had to do, or were blamed for doing just because. Garrett talks about how sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…such as fess up and face the consequences. Rio seems swayed by Garrett, but his sister convinces him to keep still and not confess.
Unfortunate for them, probably, because when Garrett and Billy high-tail it out of Santa Fe ahead of a lynch mob (I think this was supposed to be an exciting or suspenseful scene, but it was only exceedingly underwhelming), their uncle gets them instead. Rio manages to escape, but Sara…doesn’t. Rio heads to Lincoln County, meets up with Billy in the county jail, and then via a series of vaguely-historically accurate plot happenings, ends up escaping with him, hiding out on the ranch for a while, and learning to shoot. But he also learns soon enough that charming as Billy is, he’s not going to be a help. Billy is not out for anyone except Billy.
And later that night, Pat Garrett arrives and shoots Billy from a distance without giving him the chance to surrender. See, Hollywood is saying: heroes don’t need to be heroic, principled, more skilled, faster, or better shots. Mind you, there is also an element of suicide by cop here, so…this one I give a pass to.
The movie gets distinctly weaker after this, but it is also almost over. Basically, Rio confesses all to Pat Garrett and begs his help getting his sister back from the evil uncle. There’s a showdown in a saloon, (in which Pat Garrett gets tackled by a bad guy and beaten with a chairleg until sister Sara shoots the guy off him) and then a quasi-showdown at high noon (in which Pat Garrett gets outdrawn but then Rio shoots his uncle in the head.)
The kids ride off into the sunset with Garrett’s blessing, and now Rio is the one taking charge, reassuring his sister, and being the man of the family.
It’s much better than I thought it would be–enough so that I am much more disappointed in the places where it failed, than I would be if it was just another brainless Hollywood piece.
As demonstrated by his very strategic sidelining at the climax of the movie, Ethan Hawke is not really provided with the opportunity to ride off with the entire show. This is OK, on paper. This movie is about the kid(s), and so it should be them who take vengeance into their own hands, which they do. However good all these things are–and believe me, I’m 100% in favor of an old-fashioned bildungsroman, a boy and his horse and his gun plus or minus a dog–they should not have come at the expense of the guy who provides a) the moral center of the story, b) the action hero of the story.
It’s easy to have have a character say that “There is still good in him,” or, “You’ve got a lot of good left in you.” But what does that entail, exactly, in context? When the plot is about an impressionable kid sizing up the options and deciding which way he’s going to go, there needs to be a model for him–not for his benefit, but for the audience’s. What are the paths, exactly? What are the options? What are the rewards?
The last third of the movie is weak: here’s how it could have been improved. Rio walks up to Sherriff Garrett plus a handy judge and confesses to the self-defense killing of his father. He is taken into custody and a trial commences. Rio has one other witness but is unable to produce said witness: his trafficked sister Sara. Garrett and the deputies, keeping Rio in “special custody,” ride off to go rescue the girl. You can have the exact same action beats–Sara shoots Chairleg Thug, Rio gets to shoot Pimp Uncle–but then there’s a denouement as the trial recommences (see, you can even go for additional irony by having it start and end in a bar with the judge pouring drinks, or something.) Rio is pronounced not guilty and awarded all the money in Pimp Uncle’s pockets. Now, when the kids ride off into the sunset, they can do it with the knowledge that it’s a ride to the future, and not a run from the past. The line has been clearly demarcated–for the characters, and for the audience–as to what is legitimate violence, and what is not; and it proves that the Law isn’t evil, or unreasonable, and that lawmen aren’t monsters by nature.
But then, Hollywood doesn’t want you to think about things like that, do they?
That being said: the casting is great. Christ Pratt is completely unrecognizable as the bad bad guy. Like, even without the giant beard, he just isn’t recognizable, he’s that nasty. Likewise, Dane DeHaan has the look of tintype-photo Billy Bonney down pat, despite being 10 years older than the character historically. (Welp, that never stopped Audie Murphy, so, you gotta give it a pass regardless.) Ethan Hawke, well, good as he is with what he has to do, still kinda, well, um, looks like Discount Kurt Russell-from-Tombstone. And I LIKE Ethan Hawke, HE JUST DOES!
The young hero is also, for the most part, watchable, even when he’s blurting out quasi-period dialogue and crying a lot. His sister cries even more, so.
That being said, the directing is underwhelming, bordering on terrible. It’s not easy to make a gunfight siege in a wooden cabin, a daring escape from an attempted lynch mob, or even a frigging multiplayer gunfight in a saloon be boring….but somehow, Vincent D’Onofrio managed. That, my friends, takes skill all of its own kind. It also needs to be noted that there is no good horse photography, and just about zero landscapes. That’s OK, but what really kills this movie is the fact that it’s a Western and it doesn’t have any good gun or fistfights, or horse chases or cattle. Or Injuns.
That being said, there are some scenes which all on their own are really, really good. “How far do you think you’re gonna get with a dead Charlie chained to your ankle?” “….not very far at all.” Garrett telling Rio the story of the first man he ever killed; Billy having enormous fun being interviewed while Garrett is trying to get him away from a lynch mob; Garrett’s deputy being wracked with guilt over his–completely and legally justifiable–shooting of Rio, and their discussion; Billy’s address to the crowd after escaping from the Lincoln County Jail; and Billy’s death scene. All these are very good.
Overall, I stand by my 8….although maybe I’ll knock the .5 off of it. It’s a decent enough movie, if you don’t notice Hollywood’s contempt for heroism, hatred of women, hatred of the audience, and weird loathing for the legitimate use of violence to defend one’s self or others. Sheesh, and this is me trying to say something nice about this movie.
Rated: ¿Quién es? ¿Quién es?
So, a while ago, I read Spinning Silver and remembered how much fun a good, absorbing, exciting, funny, well-written fantasy novel was.
This book is none of those things.
Plot: There’s an oppressive city society, with magicians on top and slum dwellers on the bottom. Our heroine, Sonea, is one of the latter, but after nearly (accidentally) killing one of the former with a rock that goes through his protective magical barrier, all hell breaks loose. The magicians want her badly–partly because she’s a powerful natural talent and if untrained might end up destroying the city; but also because that one guy she hit with a rock wants revenge, as he is a petty bitch. Her friends, and later, the weirdly-well-organized Thieves Guild, strive to keep her safe. But it becomes increasingly clear that she’s going to be found and she is going to NEED training, only MAGICIANS can train her, TrAiNiNg iS EsSeNtIAl FoR a WiZzArD.
That’s about the point that I gave up. There was no point to continuing. This book didn’t have any exciting action scenes, cool characters, interesting plotlines, or vaguely neat ideas that I wanted to continue, even at a skimming pace, to follow.
My problems are:
– Bland to underutilized characters. Sonea is an entirely reactive, rather than active, character. OK, well, she’s suddenly got an entire city chasing after her and she has no idea of how to use her powers. Well, she actually starts making progress, before the author chokes off that avenue, and she has the benefit of books, and the Thieves’ Guild is very anxious to help tutor her in whatever way they can. Would it have added characterization and personality if Sonea was someone whose curiosity and stubbornness refused to admit defeat or the necessity of help, and she studied away determinedly? Would it have added evidence to the idea that Sonea is Special, Powerful, and Dangerous if she actually made progress on her own? Would it have added verisimilitude if Sonea, at the very least, realized that the Thieves’ very generous help is going to require a payoff sooner or later and that she had better learn really, really quickly if she wants to retain her ears?
What’s more, everybody else is fairly boring as well, and when you’ve got a young thief-urchin, a wizard serial killer, a gay wizard so deep in the closet he’s seeing fauns and lampposts, and the freaking king of the Thieves Guild who runs an underground empire with an iron fist…that takes some doing.
– Zero payoff to a large chunk of the plot. Fully half the book is Sonea running away from the wizards. This isn’t used to set up how powerful the underworld is and therefore explain how much of a threat it actually is to the established government. We barely even get to see the government/guards in action at all–it’s all wizards, weirdly enough. We don’t become acquainted with the Thieves as characters. We don’t use the time to build relationships between the existing characters. We don’t even, and this is important, get any cool fight, chase, hiding, or suspense scenes. And, at the end, Sonea goes to the wizards anyway and it was all for nothing. Plus, at the point when it becomes clear that the wizards are tracking Sonea down when she works her magic, I started wondering why she was still in the city. Surely the Thieves have contacts outside who could take her in and hide her. That’s on par with, “Why doesn’t Buffy just get a GED and not have to attend high school anymore?” or, “Why not destroy the McGuffin instead of hiding it?” Or, “why is this movie about trade negotiations and not Sith lightsaber battles?”
– High stakes get artificially lowered. Sonea starts out the book convinced that she’s in danger of her life and the lives of everyone who helps or is even vaguely associated with her. She’s on the run for her life and everyone she knows or even comes in contact with her, anyone who helps her, anyone who cares about her, is in danger. She ends the book being pressured by a bully to be his student. She’s on the hook for perjury. That is not a good progression.
– Deus ex machina ending that solves almost all of our heroes’ problems. So after giving up on the first half, I flipped to read the end in hopes that it had something cool, exciting, or clever happening that would redeem the rest of the book.
Suffice it to say that it doesn’t.
– I’m favor of homeschooling. “Your Hero is in a school where they, wait for it, LEARN MAGIC!!” plots are just incredibly boring to me at this point, especially when your wizarding school is as incredibly boring as Trudi Canavan’s Magician’s Guild is. What’s more, having a hugely powerful but not well-trained character is a good way of making them, well, be both powerful and at the same time, handicapped. It means, while they are capable of doing awesome and plot-relevant feats, it’s also going to be hard for them to do so or come at a high price (also plot relevant.) Notice how many wizard protagonists are students or otherwise only partially trained? Notice how many fully-trained wizard characters are mentors or even just antagonists?
Of course, that would require that there be a plot for your character to be active in.
Are there good things in this book? Possibly. But I’m in no mood to celebrate the correct use of commas.
So after a brief recap, we zoom into the
70s and our odd couple parents attempting to get their respective favorite twins to stop crying and go to sleep. (“Oddly enough, Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man only made him cry harder.” Heh.) Wanda is at the point of attempting to magic the twins into submission, uh, we mean sleep, but it doesn’t work.
(“Why wouldn’t you do what I want?”)
Wanda thinks that they maybe just need more time to figure things out, but Vision’s opinion is that maybe means they need some help.
Cue Agnes rocking in in a, whoops, this must be the 80s outfit (I PREFER THE FAUX-70s STYLES AND I DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT) on her way to Jazzercise and she has baby-soothing tips GALORE, gal-pal…except Vision freaks out and doesn’t want her to touch the twins.
Okay, see this is where the whole “the actors are playing it with several levels of staginess and it’s creepy” thing starts to register to my malconditioned nerd brain. Agnes freezes. And then asks if they should just start over from the top again. (the baby crying noises cut out while they stare at each other.)
Wanda, theatrically, tells Vision that AGNES IS HERE TO HELP WITH THE BABIES. And everything is fine again, except that Vision wants to know WHAT THE HELL IS UP. Wanda soothes him, (Agnes dodges out of the room in search of the hard liquor) and then suddenly the problem is solved with the sudden appearance of the three (??) -year old Tommy and Billy instead.
(Agnes is drinking directly from the bottle.)
After the credits, Monica is getting examined and possibly debriefed? Although it’s by a nurse, so I’m going to guess not. She has a recollection of: grief…and violation…and terror. Agent Wu and Miss Doctor Lewis arrive with pants, though, and Monica refuses to let the nurse run more tests and/or blood draws after it turns out that the scans they just took are blank. (Now me, I’d be really worried IF MY BRAIN SCANS TURNED OUT BLANK but hey, strong women are going to strong women, even if there’s only strong women around to strong woman at.)
We cut to the briefing, where Director Untrustworthy And Slightly Unattractive Middle-Aged White Guy (I forgot his name) starts out by crediting Captain Rambeau with their first-hand intel. They now know that Wanda is the principal victimizer, and not a victim.
OKAY, So. Almost immediately we run into a problem. Director UNSUMWG is trying to apply real-world logic to the situation, such as including the full history of Wanda’s association with the Avengers, Hydra, and America, while Agent Wu and other characters are operating on comic book logic, which is that if you help the good guys and they trust you, then you are a Good Guy. I would not have a problem with this setup (we are in a comic book universe), except that Agent Wu is completely snotty about correcting Director UNSUMWGUNSUMWG that WANDA IS ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS whereas you are white, middle-aged, male, not particularly attractive, and in a position of power that might otherwise be occupied by the attractive young black woman. Dick.
Is Director UNSUMWG Who Is Probably Going To Die In A Humiliating Way jumping to conclusions? Yes. That’s what UNSUMWGs do. Is everybody else, including Monica Rambeau, being snotty and insubordinate? Yes. And that, unfortunately, is what “heroes” do these days, too. Monica argues with the Director about Wanda being actively malicious, despite the fact that she herself reported feeling terrified and violated while under mind control.
Okay, one bad writing demerit to the authors. While Monica has a point that Wanda has no political agenda for, y’know, holding thousands of people hostage, this is something that the Director himself should also know, given, YEEEEEEEEK, the very next thing he brings up is that a) nine days ago, b) Wanda stormed the S.W.O.R.D. lab Vision’s body was in, c) resurrected it, d) AGAINST VISION’S PRE-WRITTEN WILL. (Also, that’s creeeeeepy, eeeeeek!)
And that’s it, that’s the briefing. What? Okay, you’re supposed to end a briefing with a plan, questions, or orders–that’s what gives the scene it’s hook. And while this scene does have a hook, it’s: “boy, I wonder what will happen in the next episode (of the thing I have no control over.)”
Back in the house, Tommy and Billy are plotting something involving a puppy in the sink.
(“What is this canine doing in my kitchen sink?”
“A doggy paddle…?”)
Vision enters, in his humanoid disguise form. He’s had, you see, a feeling that someone will be popping over.
…with a dog house.
Wanda magics up a collar for the newly-christened Sparky without making an effort to hide it from Agnes (who is looking the other way! NBD!) Vision freaks a little, but Wanda’s tired of hiding and after all, Agnes didn’t notice anything wrong when the kids went from babies to five year olds. Or, thirty seconds later, when they become ten year olds.
Back at the S.W.O.R.D. encampment, Monica and Miss Doctor Lewis have determined that they need a 10-ton fallout shelter to get back inside the barrier. Monica knows a handy eurospace….what the hell, I’m leaving that typo…engineer, but Darcy points out that there’s a hex (BECAUSE HEXAGONS, eheheh…eh…eh…no, no, no, I love the science, really I do I don’t believe in magic no of course not) that might just mind-wipe her anyway.
Monica wants to go back in despite what Wanda has done to her. We elide over the exactly why this is to have a brief discussion of how this whole setup (being able to potentially create the sets, costumes, etc, means that Wanda is FREAKILY, SCARILY, DANGEROUSLY powerful) except that naw, Captain Marvel is probably cooler. [I mean, she would be if you followed my suggestions, but naw, not really.]
Monica then does something that I don’t even know if the writers realize is 1) really insulting, 2) really stupid, 3) no, even dumber than that.
1) she pulls Agent Wu’s gun out of his holster without his permission. Do I have to go into how this is an improper thing to do? Do I have to point out how this is unlikely to happen with either a professional military officer or a trained FBI agent? Do I need to detail how denigrating this is to both characters?
2) What the fuck?
3) She fires the gun at clothes that are hanging on a clothes rack, in a tent. Do I need to go into more detail?
So, I don’t like this. I do not like or agree with the unwritten rules of this universe. I don’t like the fact that it’s dumb and so incredibly okay with being so. I don’t like the fashion in which it breaks the rules of reality, or that it expects me to follow said breaks without complaint or notice.
The ACTUAL point of this scene, anyhow, is that Monica figures out that, since Wanda is changing whatever gets sent in, maybe they should send something in that doesn’t require change.
Anyhow, back in Wandaville: computers have arrived. And so, at Vision’s workplace, has an email from S.W.O.R.D., with enough information that it pushes Vision to release whats-his-face, the Indian coworker guy, from the hex. Diverse Coworker Guy begs Vision to stop “her”, it’s all “her,” “she’s in our heads”, “it hurts,” “please” “stop her,” but apparently this isn’t enough information for Vision to, you know, process.
Back at the house, the twins are starting to ask questions. Such as, how is Daddy at work when today is Saturday? Or at least, when, this morning was Saturday? And, did you have a brother, Mom?
The rest of our people are flying an 80s-era drone into town. And while Monica is on the speakerphone going “I just want to talk,” Director UNSUMWG-Who-Is-Obviously-A-Villain starts going “Take the shot.” And frankly, the man has a point because Wanda’s eyes are glowing red THROUGH A BLACK AND WHITE SCREEN.
At which point alarms start blaring in the S.W.O.R.D. compound, which means that everybody rushes outside with little bitty machine guns. In fact, there are so many machine guns (and helpful green laser sights, drawing even more attention to them), it’s kind of obvious that the guns are or are going to be a plot point.
They’ve succeeded in provoking Wanda, because she comes marching out (in Scarlet Witch garb) dragging their drone. Director UNSUMWG says: you have hostages. Wanda says: You’ve got the guns. [Audience: do you notice any kind of subtle foreshadowing here?]
Monica says: Hey, hey, hey, I am an ALLY! (NO LITERALLY SHE SAYS I AM AN ALLY. GOOD GOD.)
Wanda says: I have what I want, and you all are not going to take it from me. AAaaaaand then psychs out the men to point all their guns at Director UNSUMWG, and goes marching back.
Back in Wandaville the next day: Sparky’s dead. And Wanda is forced to tell the twins (and Agnes, who has the body), that she can’t bring back the dead. (Cue Vision wandering up: “Bring who back?”)
That evening, Wanda is packing up Sparky’s toys when Vision says: “I spoke to Norm. He was in pain, Wanda.”
Wanda rolls credits, but Vision just keeps talking. He demands to know what has happened (and the credits stop rolling). Why is she doing this (hopefully subconsciously)? Why can’t he recall his life before Wandaville? Why are there no other children in Wandaville?
Wanda denies that she is doing anything at all, let alone controlling everything and everybody in Wandaville at all times.
(the doorbell rings)
“I didn’t do that.”
“Wanda, I want to believe you but at this point I’m ignoring statistics entirely.”
(I kinda like Vision now that he’s grown a spine.)
Wanda opens the door and blanches, while, back at S.W.O.R.D., we have delayed gratification with a scene of everyone, in the face of this emergency, alarms blaring, lights flashing, RUSHING DESPERATELY TO THE TV. God, I hate the semiotics of this show.
…..I don’t actually know who this person is. But, apparently, it’s her brother Pietro….recast.
Rush in and die, dogs–I was a man before I was king!
Hour of the Dragon / Conan the Conqueror is the only novel-length Conan story, and it’s none too long at that, clocking in at 150 ebook pages and 79,000 words. So I’ll start my review with a disclaimer: this is a short, pulp fiction novel, written nearly a hundred years ago. Presumably I should lower my standards and expectations, because it was never intended to be high art or great literature. The thing is, Howard was genuinely a good enough writer to create both, if he’d wanted to or been able. The things I’m going to criticize are things I’d ding any author for, no matter what the genre or intended audience; they’re things I think would have made the story, exciting, well-crafted, superbly-worded as it is, exponentially better. Basically: Howard should have slowed down the pace a hair, expanded the characters a just bit, and stopped using the main character falling unconscious as a scene-changing device, because that always ticks me off.
So anyhow. The plot is….Conan has a series of adventures and then saves the day. You see, a cabal of highly-born and ambitious wastrels has enacted a plan to take control of Nemedia and neighborning Aquilonia: resurrect the three-milennia-dead sorcerer, priest, king, and monster Xaltotun of long-gone Acheron. By his magic, supplemented by the Heart of Ahriman, they intend to create a plague that will the King of Nemedia and replace him with one of their own. Then they will attack Aquilonia and replace Conan with a relative of the previous King.
For anyone not supported by a forgotten sorcerer from long-fallen Acheron, step 3 is where this is most likely to fail. And it almost does. Only because of Xaltotun’s sorcery is Conan struck by an uncanny wight in his tent, unable to lead his troops into battle–or hold them back from leading a charge that his less experienced body double falls for; and only because of sorcery does that end in disaster, as a landlide collapses a mountain on his army. Conan is taken alive by Xaltotun himself and cast into the Nemedian dungeons.
The cabal, you see, is not a stable alliance; Xaltotun knows it, and knows that he’ll need some threat to check Tarascus in Nemedia and hang over Valerius in Aquilonia. At this point, the narrative switches over from the fast-moving but slightly more measured pace of a novel, to the almost-frenetic short story velocity which is more familiar to Howard’s stories but….he should have slowed it down just a hair. If for no other reason than that he’s actually got plenty of plot and characters to describe. In short order: Conan is rescued by the fair maiden Zenobia, despite the efforts of Tarascus to remove Xaltotun’s leverage via a cannibal gray ape. Conan proceeds back to Aquilonia, pausing only to attempt to witness Tarascus consign the Heart of Ahriman to a Zamoran thief with orders to cast it into the sea, attempt an assassination, kiss the girl, and then, rather randomly, bump into a Nemedian warrior who had the good sense but bad luck to wonder why there was a random horse tied in a thicket outside the palace. Now, this is good writing in the sense that no exit should go easily when you’re in your enemy’s capital city, but it’s bad in that it pauses for a paragraph to introduce the Nemedian Adventurers, a class of fighting-men unique to that country who, etc etc etc. Well, the Nemedian Adventurers are unique to that paragraph, too, because the only one we meet gets run through by Conan, making this a Chekovian blunder. A simple soldier on patrol would have done just as well for the amount of effort Conan puts into escaping him.
The bulk of the plot is expanded on promptly, as Conan encounters Zelata, an Aquilonian witch, who tells him he must find the heart of his country before he can lead them in the fight again; and Servius Galannus, one of his barons, who clarifies the political situation to him. Conan’s general, Prospero, lacks the manpower to carry war to the enemy without more support; Conan’s appointed heir, Count Trocero, has been rejected by the trucculent barons, who would submit to a king but distrust one of their own gaining supremacy over them. Valerius has been proclaimed king almost unimpeded–which the Aquilonian citizens are only just begining to realize was a really stupid mistake. Loyalty to Conan or simple self-respect is being brutally punished–a burned villa and a countess about to be executed form the chief examples–and the common people, as we have seen in Zelata–are already being persecuted by foreign soldiers.
This part of the novel, where Conan demonstrates his grasp of statesmanship and strategy, discusses options with a counselor, listens to the advice given him–and then decides what to do–is masterful. We get a clear picture of what is going on, the conventional view of what should be done, and then we see both how our hero thinks (differently) and how he differs from ordinary people (he intends to get things done.) It does this briskly, without frills, digressions, or narrative excesses. And, since almost all the rest of the actual, non-serialized adventures plot of the book rests on this one chapter, it accomplishes some serious heavy lifting in its few pages, too.
But Conan decides to rescue the Countess Albiona before he heads off to join his remaining loyal generals, which, besides allowing a little bit of scantily-clad fair-maidenly-rescuing, gives the last impetus for the main action of the novel. Rescue complete, Conan and Albiona meet the priests of Asura, a religion which is usually persecuted but which Conan has allowed freedom to practice in Aquilonia. The priests of Asura have a widespread network and some uncanny abilities. They assure Conan that the Heart of Ahriman is the secret to defeating Xaltotun–and, better yet, that it has not been cast into the sea and is traceable.
Conan goes after it, utilizing his old contacts in the underworld, from his time as a petty thief, a masterless fighting-man, and a corsair captain. His pursuit of the jewel and its sequential passage from hand to hand by theft, murder, flight, and more murder, covers about one-third of the book, and….it’s the least satisfying part of the story, simply because we’ve seen Conan do these serial-adventure things so many times before, with the same exact narrative beats and same exact pacing. I guess that’s what my main problem is: this is a big chunk of the novel, and it’s the same old same old. Incidentally, Conan is being followed by a team of creepy guys in hoods, but they’re almost more of a stage dressing than a threat so never mind. Nevertheless, he finally does secure the Heart, after following it across a continent and an ocean and returns in hasty triumph to his corsair ship and to Aquilonia.
From there, things proceed, very satisfactorily, from the utterly characteristic message with which Conan opens hostilities:
To Xaltotun, grand fakir of Nemedia: Dog of Acheron, I am returning to my kingdom, and I mean to hang your hide on a bramble.
–to the final stroke, wherein Conan sets the ransom for Tarascus of Nemedia: one girl from his palace–Zenobia, who will become Queen of Aquilonia.
This book has bits that are absolutely brilliant:
Beside the altar-stone lay no fresh-slain corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass sprawling among moldering swathings.
Somberly old Zelata looked down.
‘He was not a living man,’ she said. ‘The Heart lent him a false aspect of life, that deceived even himself. I never saw him as other than a mummy.’
After Conan has had an encounter with a beautiful woman in the cellars of a forgotten temple (who tries to drink his blood and whom he flees into the monster-haunted catacombs rather than face down):
…through his fear ran the sickening revulson of his discovery. The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining for ever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man’s idolatry, its glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men’s dreams and idolatries.
There’s even Servius Galannus’ reaction to Conan’s appearance at his plantation:
At the low call the master of the plantation wheeled with a startled exclamation. His hand flew to the short hunting-sword at his hip, and he recoiled from the tall gray steel figure standing in the dusk before him.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What is your – Mitra!’
His breath hissed inward and his ruddy face paled. ‘Avaunt!’ he ejaculated. ‘Why have you come back from the gray lands of death to terrify me? I was always your true liegeman in your lifetime-‘
When was the last time you read or heard someone say “Avaunt”? And as an intro, this is a good way of showing that, while Servius Galannus is a small-time farmer, he does not fear man; and he does not hesitate to protest to Conan’s supposed-shade that he was loyal.
But these are moments only: it doesn’t sustain them…and I wish it had.
So my main criticism is that the book needed to slow down just a tad and expand on its characters a hair. One of Howard’s main strengths is a weakness in this book. His ability to portray quick, vital snapshots of bold and passionate characters engaged to their utmost in at the most dramatic moments of their lives is great for creating memorable short stories. But in a longer work, more than a single snapshot is needed. Is it a problem? Only if you pause for breath between battles, assassinations, rescues, hidden temples, wars, dungeon escapes, battles, lost temples, catacombs, slave revolts, shadow-cloaked priests, vampire queens, forgotten temples, giant serpents, more battles, and plain old street fights. But I submit that it could have made the difference between a crackin’ good Conan yarn and a genuinely great novel.
The breakneck pace keeps your attention! And it is headlong as hell. But it’s without time for reflection, or, well, characterization. Everyone is portrayed in the quick strokes and primary colors; further developments are informed of by the omniscient narrator. This…could have been better. While quick and vivid sketches are the name of the game in short stories, this is a novel and it has to be a) longer, b) more interesting. There’s time and there’s a need to slow down, if just a hair, and expand on things, like people’s feelings.
Especially Conan’s. Conan is different as a king than he was as an adventurer–but not by much. He’s always had an eye for strategy, and he’s always had a soft spot for helpless civilians; he’s always been frank and fair. He was a man before he was king; and that he remains. We get to see what he says and does, and with Conan what he does is what he thinks….mostly. But, given that we’re dealing with an older and wiser Conan, it would be nice to see him realizing this and, even if it makes him uncomfortable, to think about it some.
There are also a menagerie of secondary characters who don’t get to be nearly as cool as they could be. Although Trocero is Conan’s appointed successor and heir, he gets only a single scene and no real characterization: his scene and comments are really only a repeat of Servius Galannus’ from ealier. And then there are the cool people who pop up in one scene and are never, uh, seen again. Who is Countess Albiona, other than a pretty girl whom Conan must rescue because he hasn’t met his quota for the novel? Does Servius Galannus rally to his king at the end, bringing only his loyalty and a handful of men-at-arms? What is the deal with the Nemedian Adventurers–could they form an elite squadron which dies to the man, struck down trying to defend the undeserving Tarascus? Zelata and the Asuran whisper network are cool enough to genuinely deserve more than the single line they get describing how much a problem they have become to Valerius.
You see, Howard comitted a tactical error: he made his characters too cool and then didn’t use them enough to showcase how or why.
Writing this review, I’ve also realized that most of my problem with the “chasing the McGuffin” section of the novel is primarily because it hews too closely to the short-story formula–probably because Howard was just tweaking his existing stories to fit the new frame narrative. Would it have been better written in a different fashion, after all? Honestly, maybe not. I don’t know. I only can plead a vague dissatisfaction with this part of the book and not really any cogent solutions.
Yeah, so basically, if you were to ask me how I rated this book:
I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.
Marnie is a 1961 novel by Winston Graham (no, I’ve never heard of him, either) which was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock (who does sound familiar) in 1964. The movie met mixed success, despite starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. The book apparently has been mostly forgotten.
The book is way better than the movie. I know, shocking.
Plot: Margaret “Marnie” Elmer, an attractive, intelligent, perceptive young woman, steals money from the companies she has worked for to support her crippled, widowed mother. She’s done three so far and is confident in her abilities to lie as readily to her employers as to her mother, but taking a job as cashier to [COMPANY] turns out to be the step too far.
Marnie is twisted–although not lacking in empathy, she is remote and distant enough that it might as well be the case. On this job, however, she starts to connect with people, interacts with people (especially: male people), and this starts to change: she has conversations, makes friends, and the firm’s part-owners, Mark Rutland and Terry Holbrook, take an interest in her. Terry is an affable slimeball, but Mark is a gentleman–and also sincerely in love with Marnie. Enough to cover for her when she makes her move, search when she disappears, haul her back by the ear, and….
….blackmail her into marrying him.
Mark’s also an idiot, because he thinks that this will all work out fine, somehow.
Marnie, however, has what TVTROPES helpfully categorizes as Paralyzing Fear of Sexuality. She goes absolutely berserk at the thought of consummating the marriage, a state of affairs which continues through the honeymoon until Mark gets fed up and–Trigger Warning–rapes her. (He apologizes after.)
He also insists that she see a psychiatrist.
Marnie’s sparring with the psychiatrist, with Mark, with Terry (who is smart enough to suspect something is up with his partner’s new wife when it’s that bloody obvious), her alternating escape plans and tentative efforts to acclimatize herself to her situation–and efforts to find a new source of cash to bring home to Mother–take most of the novel’s second half. Despite heroic efforts of resistance on Marnie’s part, the good doctor makes some progress at helping her realize that she really is missing something: there are in her past events that don’t add up, memories that can’t be real, wrong dates, unlikely coincidences. It takes genuine tragedy to make the breakthrough, but, finally, at the extreme end, Marnie finds the key to it all….
The end reveal is different in the novel than the film (again, the film was dumbed down a lot), enough so that I didn’t expect and won’t spoil it here. In the movie, the issues are resolved by a chat with Mother and a good cry, and Marnie is now at peace with Mark and mankind. (Or, er, humankind.) Here…the reveal doesn’t so much show all to the audience as it does give Marnie the tools she needs to understand what others have told her about herself: that she isn’t evil or crazy–just, in a highly specific and also harmful way, sick.
Marnie finds this knowledge, Mark’s support, and her own newfound awareness, empowering enough to walk through a door and face down her enemies at the cliffhanger climax of the novel. We don’t know if Marnie will go to jail after all, but now she has the stability to handle a trial, and is able to accept Mark’s love (no, his feelings) at last.
The book, which is first person, is primarily a character study of Marnie…and she’s a fascinating character. She lies easily and smoothly. She can remember the day and hour she decided to steal for the first time. She loves her mother, but also somewhat despises her. She loves her horse. She’s extremely intelligent, good with numbers, a quick learner at whatever she turns her hand to. She was raised in poverty by a poorly educated and unintelligent woman with a twisted view of the world. And Marnie was twisted by that worldview, shaped by it, and yet grew up all right mostly, except for the few little parts in her that bent a little too far out of shape and broke.
Mark is an interesting character well, although as the novel wears on, Marnie’s loathing for him does not diminish, and his patience never fails, he does strain credulity. The version of him played by Sean Connery is actually quite good, either because Connery’s charisma pulls it off, or because he does lose his temper occasionally.
Terry Holbrook, a book-only character, is someone who might have been excellent when played by George Saunders. My exact notes on Terry state: “affably despicable when he’s bad, affably smug when he’s being nice.” Marnie headbutting him in the nose was a definite high point for the book and his character. Focusing the book more on corporate intrigue, backstabbing, and blackmail, would have been interesting. A different book entirely, but interesting. In the movie, Terry’s character is converted into Mark’s jealous step-sister, Lil Mainwaring, either because Diane Baker was more photogenic or Saunders was too expensive.
What else do I have to say about this….Oh yes. So I’m working on a thesis that the difference between an OK work and a great one is: horses. Fort Dobbs? Last Train from Gun Hill? No focus on horses, and they’re…OK at best. Quantez? With a comparable cast, budget, and script, + horses? It’s much better than OK. Maybe not “great”, but very good. The Subtle Knife books? OK but then sharply declining in quality: no horses. Narnia? Not only horses, but Talking Horses; a classic. The Dragaera novels? No horses. The hero even has to do his wandering the earth on foot. They absolutely don’t hold up to re-reads. Lord of the Rings? You have Bill the Pony, the entire country of Rohan, and Shadowfax. LOTR is a seminal work on which the entire modern fantasy genre is based. The Blue Sword? It’s literally swords-and-horses fantasy and it won the Newberry. (…a blue ribbon…?) So. Yeah, um, back to the topic.
Marnie’s love for her horse, Forio, is one of the most human things about her, and the thing that motivates her the most. A reviewer elsewhere derided Marnie’s going to an injured Forio first, instead of her husband, as evidence of a terrible person, and as unrealistic. That reviewer has obviously never owned a horse before, or heard one screaming.
Anything else…Well, Marnie is an excellent narrator. Objectively, she’s a terrible person–a liar, impersonal, resentful, a thief–but from the inside she’s understandable and even sympathetic. Her steps toward finding her own identity, settling into the role and community of “Mrs. Rutland” are actually rather heartwarming to read.
And I’m out of things to say about this book, except that I was up until about 1:53 a.m. reading it.
Rated: Five stolen payrolls out of five.
Dark Avenger’s Sidekick is the second trilogy in the Moth & Cobweb series by John C Wright, comprising Daughter of Danger, City of Corpses, and Tithe to Tartarus. It is YA novel that straddles the line between science fiction, urban fantasy, and high fantasy and does it effortlessly. It’s written by the one SF/F writer alive who can use prose on the level of Jack Vance and write worlds with the scope of Roger Zelazny. I liked it a lot less than the previous trilogy. I wanted to like this book a lot more than I liked it; caveat: I think part of my problem is that I don’t like Urban Fantasy that comes down too heavily on the Fantasy side.
In short? I was disappointed in the resolution of the plot, and did not feel that the heroine’s characterization worked properly for the genre and her narrative role in it.
Also, not enough respect for my boy Batman/Winged Vengeance.
Plot: an amnesiac woman wakes up in a hospital bedroom, convinced that it is a trap. She’s right. A trio of monsters invade and try to kill her; she fights her way clear and escapes. (The whole five-feet tall, 90 pounds soaking wet = ineffective combatant rule doesn’t apply to mooks, I guess). She’s wearing a hospital gown and a mysterious ring that changes its appearance and has various powers.She doesn’t know her own name.
Long story short, she is Yumiko Moth the Fox Maiden, apprentice of a night-stalking vigilante called Winged Vengeance (he’s basically Batman except hardcore, lol); she lost her memory during a raid and was either left behind by Winged Vengeance (boo), or escaped via the sacrifice of her fiancee, Tom. I forget which. In any case, Tom is being held prisoner by the bad guys and is going to be sent to Hell as teind for the court of the evil faery. Does this sound vaguely familiar yet?
Yumiko, despite her deep reservations about the kind of silly, post-modern, unrealistic story where *girls* rescue *boys* (hmph!), well, has to go rescue him. Part of this involves going undercover. In time-honored tradition for beautiful young female detectives, this involves being scantily clad. (Book 2) I did snicker at the wardrobe mistress assuring Yumiko, with sadistic cheerfulness, that their weight-watching regimen was no more arduous than that of a professional wrestling team.
Book 2 and a chunk of book 3 comprise Yumiko failing at her mission in various humiliating-to-hilarious ways, until she teams up with the hero of the previous trilogy, Gil Moth, is baptized as a Catholic, and stops trying to fight for her love and just to hold on to him. Literally. While being injured in various gross and horrifying ways that are described with sadistic relish.
I found this ending unsatisfactory.
I have three problems with this story overall.
Problem 1: Improper handling of female character archetype. See, authors have limited repertoire of characters. Their expertise is in how they change and modify their own stock of characters by giving them different skillsets, placing them in new settings, or using different, new plots to show them off in different ways.
This is why Roger Zelazny writes of tall, laconic, green-eyed men with many names; but they are differentiated into the tall, ballad-writing, many-named Corwin of Amber, the tall, laconic, many-named hero of My Name is Legion, and the tall, sarcastic Carlton Davits. All have different roles to play. His female characters are either sultry but straightforward or sultry and coy; they are memorable either way. Larry Correia writes big, burly men who are smarter than they look and like guns, handsome antagonistic men who are dumber than they look and like guns, and beautiful women who are not particularly sophisticated, who like guns *a lot*. Gordon R Dickson writes square-jawed space-age heroes who Know How Systems Work, who confidently set forward to make them Work For Me. The confident hero can either not be quite as smart as he thinks he is (Soldier Ask Not), not nearly as smart as he thinks he is (Pro), or dead right (Wolfling). His female characters tend to be: annoying. Well, you can’t do everything all at once. Especially if you’re a nerd. Writing for nerds.
Again: an expert author can have a limited repertoire, it’s fine–but he must know how to use what he’s got.
John C. Wright’s female character repertoire is singular: highly feminine, happy to be so, happy with life in general, cheerful, helpful. (Any similarities to Mrs. Wright, who, as per her blog seems like a lovely person, are purely speculative. But, yeah.) This type of heroine works quite well–as he himself noted in character, in the Golden Oecumene—if the genre is first-person romance (heh). Now, as his skills improve, he is able to vary this somewhat: highly feminine, cheerful, and secretly a femme fatale Trying To Lure Hero Into MORTAL SIN (Iron Chamber of Memory); or, highly feminine, not cheerful because her mission is not going well, and doesn’t particularly like her putative love interest (yet) (Somewhither). Both of these heroines do work and I rate both of those books highly.
Yumiko is an attempt to write a Short Female Badass (an archetype in its own right)…who is also highly feminine, giggly, and revels in male attention. She starts out as the Fox Maiden, the Dark Avenger’s sidekick, someone whose deeds of vengeance strike fear and nausea into the hearts of her victims. Or so we’re told. Yumiko herself has amnesia and, over the course of the story, mostly proves herself to be the kind of girl who, as a presumable adult, still has relations with a large stuffed teddy bear. (not kidding). The dichotomy doesn’t work. Now, while I think there is a way it *could* have worked, (see the Tam Lin section below), as it is, it doesn’t.
Problem 2. Subversion of narrative structure.
Bear with me.
The central tenet of fiction is that heroes win after they lose. Especially after losing in a particular way, with additional humiliation, by showing more prowess, intelligence, technique. Those who completely abandon their initial techniques and try to win without fighting are those who are certain of possession of the moral high ground (Return of the Jedi) (or physical high ground, Revenge of the Sith), and the conflict ceases to be about the fight so much as about the moral and psychological dimensions of it.
The hero’s learning curve has to continue logically forward from whatever has already been shown before. Otherwise, why show it? So if hero lost before by: applying brute force instead of strategy–win by applying superior strategy. If loss was by expecting fair play–win with overwhelming force.
Yumiko doesn’t change her initial technique by Being More Clever. The heroes are outwitted at every single step of the way by What’s-his-name Moth anyhow. She doesn’t change her initial technique by Working On A Team and Trusting Her Allies, either. No: what she *does* change is her violent pagan heart for a new, sinless, Christian (Catholic) one, and then also doesn’t fight. (Not Kidding) Protestants (and atheists) read these damn books too, you know.
This is, I believe, a narrative-level mistake. Changing from a physical battle to a physical struggle that isn’t a battle, without allowing hero to negate their previous failures is highly unsatisfying. Not allowing the hero to make up for previous humiliations caused by being dumb is unsatisfying. If Yumiko had won without fighting by outsmarting the Moths and the forces of Hell, that would have been satisfying. If Yumiko had managed to learn a new fighting technique and suddenly was able to overpower the enemy physically, that would have been satisfying. Instead, Yumiko wins by being passive. (Is it because girls should be passively courageous and not try to fight and (hmph!) rescue boys? I have my suspicions.)
The climax of the story is a nearly point for point retelling of Tam Lin. For your amusement and/or edification, please follow the link, which is a brief and highly editorialized retelling. In short, though: heroine’s lover is on his way to hell; heroine must identify lover accurately; heroine must physically grab hold of lover; heroine must hold on to lover through various shapeshifts, boom, lover has been saved from hell.
(Image via wylielise.deviantart.com. Have I mentioned recently that WORDPRESS SUCKS AND THEIR EDITORS ARE NOW FAR LESS USEFUL THAN BEFORE? BECAUSE WORDPRESS SUCKS.)
Ahem. So, anyway: despite being someone so absolutely gifted at reimagining old tales, putting new twists into them, making utterly absurd and illogical things happen in charming and funny ways…Wright nonetheless plays this absolutely, completely, straight. And misses by a mile.
Part of the reason Tam Lin works is that there’s an extra archetypal quality to it, something my liftime as a Pratchett reader insists on calling “myffic.” Janet is pregnant; she needs Tam Lin to live not only for her own sake, but for her child’s. Tam Lin wants to escape Hell, and also to escape the Faerie, to be a father to his child in the world of men. The subtextual meaning of this story is that people who take responsibility for themselves at each step of the way, can, will, and should make great efforts to better their lives and the lives of their children.
This paratext is absent from Wright’s story. And I think that actually putting it back in–making Yumiko knowingly or unknowingly pregnant during her story–would have actually worked at some level. At the very least, it gives Yumiko an out for not being All That, physically. Thus it’d be OK that she can’t defeat the enemy in a hand-to-hand battle; thus, it would add a ticking clock element to her days as a corseted undercover dancing girl.
A second myffic point in Tam Lin is that Tam doesn’t injure Janet even though the enemy turns him into different, scary animals to try and make her let go: things may be weird, appearances may be scary, but he is the same person underneath, worthy to be her husband and the father of her child. He may not be able to control his outside circumstances (shape), but he can control himself and not harm the mother of his child. Here, Yumiko is *horribly* injured as Tom is turned into a variety of porcupines, sword fish, ray fish, sawfish, venomous porcupines, and other nasty things with spikes on them. What’s more, this section goes on for a long time.
Misery porn + the climax of your novel? DO NOT MIX.
(Then she gets healed by drinking the blood of her vampire priest cousin. Not kidding. What??)
Could Yumiko have used her Tom-provided technology nonlethally as it was “intended” to be used, to grapple and hold him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have provided the bigwigs of Faerie proof of What’s-his-Name’s treachery and misdeeds, and persuaded them to switch out Tom for him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have engaged in one-on-one battle for Tom? Sure (she has a magic ring that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic bow that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic sword that is…yes. If that’s not enough to make it a fair fight, then Tom should have made her some ray guns, too.) Does she? No.
Does this book have any pros? Yes, like all JCW books, it is superbly worded, the worldbuilding is excellent, the descriptions, gadgets, and settings are vivid. There are many good points about this story; I’m just out of time to write about them and it was more fun to complain.
Rated: 2/5 magic swords that are never drawn, magic bows that are never strung, and magic arrows that are never fired.
“So there’s this book called Dark Emu about how the Australian aborigines actually had pretty intensive cultivation before the British or whoever came….”
“What? Well, that’s a lie.”
“No, no, see, he has first-hand, primary sources and so on. He says they practiced intensive cultivation of things like grass and yams…”
“For the seed grain.”
“He thinks its akin to the primitive levels of cultivation of wheat. You know, historically.”
“Grass seeds are not as nutritious as wheat.”
“Well, like, the grass species they used were in the process of being domesticated, the same way it was in Mesopotamia. Only the process was interrupted. Or something like that, I think he thinks.”
“That would be smart except that that didn’t happen in Mesopotamia, either.”
“Well, yes, but the primary sources do say they did have huge fields of grass–”
“Yeah, and huge, huge fields of yams, as far as the eye could see. What they did is they used fire, like all the native peoples. They didn’t cultivate because they didn’t have domesticated animals to pull plows. I’m sure they were able to have large areas to harvest, in places like the coasts where you can do that kind of thing. This guy is just a bleeding-heart liberal environmentalist who doesn’t know anything about agriculture. Have you thought about changing your major to English?”
“Well, that’s another part of his thesis. He thinks that since they didn’t plow and there were no hoofed animals, this had a beneficial impact on the soil, since there weren’t any sheep to overgraze and the soil stayed covered almost year-round. So there are places now are desert that used to be able to support a, not necessarily a large, population.”
“Nope. Nope. Did not happen. You see, Anthropology and Sociology majors have to to do something to pay off their college loans, so they have to go and come up with things like this. It makes him feel good to think about the pure, innocent, primitive natives being out there, secretly being very smart but not as smart as he is. English majors just get jobs teaching school and reading books.”
“Well, he has primary sources! And sheep are very destructive! They could have contributed.”
“Yes, and he thinks that’s a strong argument because he’s an academic. He’s never heard of rotational grazing. No farmer wants to destroy his own pasture, why would he?”
“Well, I’m against sheep on general principles anyway. And Australia has had real trouble with introduced species. Like cane toads. And rabbits.”
“Uh-huh, and are they complaining about rabbits in the original sources?”
“No! Look, what he’s saying boils down to is that the aborigines had a pretty good established system of management for the land that was very different from the European system, that one didn’t necessarily work as well. And that they had some pretty sophisticated other technologies as well, like fish traps and animal traps.”
“And if you teach high school English to the kids, you can assign them books about living off the land and learning how to make bear traps from tree bark. What was that book you used to like? It was about the two boys out in the woods.”
“See, I thought his book was interesting because it seemed like a very elvish way of cultivating the land. You live in harmony with nature, and you get a giant harvest–”
“But you use minimal effort and you manipulate the landscape so the whole system works for you.”
“Wrong. Elves live in cities made of stone and glass and they plunder the earth to mine gold and jewels. I read it in a book.”
“….those are city elves, dad.”
“City elves are better than country elves. Who wants to be a country bumpkin elf when you could be a sophisticated and glamorous–”
[Note….This was a more-or-less verbatim conversation. I keep reposting it because it makes me laugh every time.]
So, I have read all five of these books, and none of them were worth paying money for. This review consists of things I feel justified in pointing out, because they are things I would also have problems with, as a writer or aspiring writer. I really would like to like these books. The idea is great! Spies and agents for the Library of All Worlds, dragons, eldritch abominations of chaos, cat burglars, magic, magitech, great detectives, and zeppelins. I can take or leave zeppelins, but the rest of it sounds good, right?
The problem is, it isn’t written very well, and no one has told Ms. Cogman how to play to her strengths or even what those strengths are.
Plot: The Library is trying to play mediator in a peace conference between the dragons (forces of Order) and the Fae (chaos). There’s been a murder. There’s going to be war between factions and between worlds unless someone can figure out Who Dun It. Simple, really.
Cogman is really good at writing fanfiction. I mean, really good. I discovered her because of, uh, well, worse things have been admitted, *cough* her Bleach fanfic. And her Chronicles of Amber stuff is also really superb.
But fanfic is fanfic. Original writing is different. Creating your own world requires imagination–to make it up in the first place–thought, to make it workable–and talent, to portray it in a coherent manner. Cogman elides this step by using her many worlds as simply possible, making each or at least most of them just be a slightly more feminist-friendly (not kidding) real-world historical setting. That’s lazy writing, but it’s also fine!–as long as you either make them distinct and/or, have whatever’s happening to your characters be so interesting the background, comparatively speaking, fades.
Here’s the next problem: Cogman isn’t good at characterization. Writing your own characters requires the ability to a) make them distinct and b) make the audience care about them. b) is less difficult to accomplish, because the audience is usually naturally on the protagonists’ side. a) is way, way harder, because it means giving them a personality and portraying that personality consistently throughout and against the vagaries of the plot.
I’m not criticizing her for lazy writing: making the Fae be “archetypes” is a legitimate cheat, because then you can insert a couple paragraphs about how the Fae in front of you doesn’t actually have a personality, just a set of characteristics which, conveniently, they are forced by Universal Narrativium to adapt to that particular scene. Annoying, but if you pull it off with enough panache (aka, make that Fae be distinct enough and consistent enough), then I, the reader, can go along with it.–especially if you don’t belabor the point too much.
But that isn’t going to work with your actual heroes. Vale has no personality. Kai has Standard Romance Hero personality, which is to say, no personality. Dragon investigator Mu Ren has no personality. Irene does have a personality, and I would hate to be petty and say that her personality is G. Cogman-in-Victorian-Britain-as-an-idealized-Librarian-Spy, but….it just kinda feels that way.
Ironically, the one person who emerges from this book (and series in general) with some distinction is Silver, the Fae semi-antagonist Sexy Bad Boy. He gets identifiable and consistent characterization, because being a) sexy, b) bad boy sexy, requires that he actually say or do things which other people/the protagonist can respond to at a physical and emotional level. There is no other parallel to this in the book. Irene and Kai are lovers. You can’t tell it from any word or action or reaction they have throughout the book. Irene dislikes and distrusts Prezkov. You couldn’t tell it from any thought or word or narrative description, either. But you do know where Irene stands with regard to Silver. (It’s fascinated revulsion–but you have to admit that he who responds to an attack of cybernetic alligators with “Johnson! My elephant gun!” has got style.) Silver is also fairly funny, which is a benefit, and Cogman is very good at humor.
Next problem: Cogman isn’t good at subtext, and this makes the entirety of this book really, really clunky. Your mileage may vary on the next section of this analysis, but I think it’s sound.
So when you have a murder, the three basic facts are: means, motives, and opportunity. The detective/hero/investigator generally finds out the means pretty quickly. Stabbed in the heart. Shot in the head. Beaten to death in a room locked from the inside. The means and opportunity part gets rounded up when you cross-check all suspects’ alibis. Who has a knife? Who has a gun in that caliber? Who has keys to the door? Who can teleport?
Those two parts are always pretty straightforward, and generally the sidekick gets to pop in and out, doing the legwork while the hero does the dramatic heavy lifting: determining the motives.
See, for a mystery novel, the classic structure is: hero asks questions, hero is given answers, hero decides how truthful those answers are and thence determines motives. This requires the hero have the ability to know (and the author to show) such complex social niceties as intent, lying by omission, hinting, eagerness to talk, reluctance to talk, genuine emotions, feigned emotions, and other things that I, a nerd, have enough trouble with in real life, let alone fiction. It requires the hero to be able to keep track of what’s actually going on versus what people are saying–and that requires there to actually be something happening.
That doesn’t happen in this book. It’s okay to be bad at something; but then, if you are bad at something, you shouldn’t write a book which especially requires that.
Cogman isn’t good at dialogue, either. Which is to say, she is good at writing long exchanges which are sometimes witty and often amusing. But she is not good at: using dialogue to further characterization, to establish motives, to raise tension, or to delineate stakes.
This damn book is a good 95% dialogue, and 90% of that is exposition….boring exposition. One or two, or three or four people, distinguishable only by the use of their names in the tags (see above: no personality), keep exchanging information with each other: the kind of dialogue that, in a different book, could be safely skipped because we’ll find out what’s going on through whatever happens next. The context of everyone’s actions, later, will keep everything clear.
Only, there is very little of anything happening. This is directly related to the next problem:
Cogman isn’t good at action. This isn’t exactly her fault–it’s her beta readers’ and editors’ fault. A good support team would really make a huge difference in the quality of these books, telling Cogman what is good, what works, why it works, and what doesn’t. There is at least one scene where everything clicks into place and there is a genuine sense of urgency, tension, and horror. But it’s all by itself and so very, very lonely out there, it finishes quickly so Irene can get back to the important business of talking to people about what just happened. (It’s the scene with the rats.)
Cogman has clearly heard the maxim about having someone with a gun walk in when you don’t know what else to do with your plot. What this book lacks is for any of these interludes to carry narrative or emotional punch. If the hero isn’t scared or threatened–or excited–why should the audience feel any of these emotions? If the threat has no further meaning or bearing on events, why did we even waste our time reading it, I’m skipping ahead until something else happens.
I don’t like this book even as much as the previous ones, which I also rated pretty harshly. There were no standout scenes except the aforementioned and quickly glossed-over rats; no characters made an impression, nothing. I don’t even think the peace talks were a good idea, myself.
Rated: I dunno, I feel bad about being so harsh and negative about this book and this author. But I’d also like to read a really good book with dragons and spies, many worlds and intrigue, honor, and romance, and action.
Four snowflakes out of ten.
Cobra Kai is the Youtube Red sequel to the 1980-something Karate Kid movie. It did well–there’s a second season planned. (I liked it less.) But! Nevertheless, Season 1 was surprisingly popular and gained legs from good word of mouth. I’ll contribute: Cobra Kai is quite good. No, it’s not great–although, bless its heart, it does try. And trying is half the battle. But….not all of it.
Cobra Kai starts off strongly, keeps swinging through the first half, puts its head down and bulls on forward for the last bit…and finishes weak.
The plot: Johnny Lawrence, the bullying blond punk from the original movie, has grown up. He’s a washed-out, borderline alcoholic, deadbeat dad with no prospects and no respect–or self respect. (Daniel LaRusso owns a successful car dealership. Motto: “We kick the competition.” And the bit with the complementary bonsai trees with purchase had me in stitches). Nevertheless, Johnny’s fate changes when he intervenes to help a wimpy kid (Miguel) being bullied. He’s inspired to restart the Cobra Kai dojo and take Miguel as his first student. Other students join as well–fellow outcasts and bullied nerds from the local high school; as Johnny teaches them the the way of the fist, their confidence improves and his life as well.
Barring a few….hitches.
Complicating matters is the fact that Daniel LaRusso has not forgiven Cobra Kai or Johnny for his earlier days of hell, that Miguel ends up dating Daniel’s daughter, or that Johnny’s son ends up as Daniel’s pupil, and the tension is just racheting up….
It all comes to a head at the Tournament.
And there is where it all takes a sharp, short nosedive back into derivative mediocrity.
The writers wanted to end the series on a bittersweet note, with a warning about the dangers of ambition/revenge, a warning about how violence really doesn’t solve anything, guys! Don’t try this at home!, some torque to the heartstrings from the family drama, and then the looming shadow of Daddy Issues Past coming to call…ps, pls renew membership so get a next season, thx.
All that is fine, those are valid story options, and each of them has had a degree of setup. Except that the writers went way overboard on every single one. How do they accomplish their end? By turning the final fight into a carbon copy of the original Karate Kid fight, strategically ignoring everybody’s character development, and shoehorning in a hamfisted downer ending in by hook or by crook.
Want to stop being bullied? Even….maybe just a little..take revenge? Only psychopaths want that. All of the Cobra Kai students are suddenly bloodthirsty, surly, cheating maniacs. Why? Because the narrative demands that a Cobra Kai student make an illegal blow against a Miyagi student, temporarily putting him out of the game until he and his teacher decide to reenter the contest, running on sheer will and grit. Why? Because the narrative demands that Johnny be the moral loser. Why? Because second season, pls. PS, “heroes” are losers.
Want to be personally strong and capable of protecting yourself? But violence really doesn’t solve anything! Look! All the kids became bullies once they learned karate! Except they didn’t. Yes, it’s quite possible that they could have gone on to do so, given time and once they realized that they are no longer the underdogs. But one singular “show no mercy” pep talk from the coach doesn’t do that. One incidence of slapping down a bully (or wedgie-ing a bully, or defending yourself and your crush from a bully), doesn’t make you villain material. Hollywood not recognizing this? Is part of the problem.
As far as the tournament goes, only one student was completely out of control and out of line–and Johnny and the referees should both have yanked up him extremely short, immediately, on the first offense (put that back tattoo away, boy). And once he made the illegal strike–in the back, dude?–Johnny should have laid him out cold for jeopardizing Cobra Kai’s reinstatement, and for dishonoring them. The chubby black girl was surly, and should have also been lectured for unsportsmanlike behavior. Two or three lines of dialogue or a backhand to the face (Capital punishment. It works.) would have fixed this.
Some yanking at the heartstrings: Johnny’s son Robby is competing against his own father’s students–especially, against Miguel. Robby is doing it all on his own, having broken with his own teacher, Daniel, without anyone at all to support him. Miguel, meanwhile, is having to fight the guy that the girl he likes appears to like. (Teenagers, man. GOD I HATE TEENAGERS.)–and he wants to impress his sensei and win the fight, not knowing that Robby is Johnny’s son.
No matter who wins, Johnny is going to lose, and the victory is going to be incomplete and hollow.
This is a good setup.
It could have stood on its own without stacking the damn deck against it.
With the worst of it duly complained about, is the rest of the series good? Yep. It’s funny, it has action, nostalgia (not never too much of it), good characters (although I always wonder why no one ever just gets a GED rather than stay in the toxic environment of TV-High Schools), good pacing and, barring a few failures, mostly intelligent writing.
The cinematography and production appear smooth and well-done.
Also, this series was extremely funny. After the bonsai tree offer, the competitor car dealership offering All-American, low-water-using cacti? LOL. “Who’s that?” “That’s….an illegal I picked up this morning. Brought him in to help out.”
Rated: Four out of five. Second place is only honorable if you didn’t cheat–but check it out anyway.