PSA: Dresden Files Short Story out

heroic-hearts“Little Things” is Jim Butcher’s contribution to the Heroic Hearts anthology, released, uh, a couple days ago.

Protip: If you do not want to sign up for your free Audible download and/or fork over money for this, your free Overdrive library account has a “read an excerpt” option, which apparently includes the full length of the story.

It stars, as the cover denotes, Major General Toot-Toot Minimus and his not-girlfriend, Lacuna. Also appearing are the Za Lord, Dresden; his castellan, Sir William; the guardian spirit Bob, and the dread beast Mister of the fell paws and stubby tail.

The plot?

The conomee is bad. The Lord Dresden is in mourning. The troops are worried and restless. And there is a sudden, present threat to the pizza!

I have no further comments to add except that the Little Folk thinking that the tarp dropcloths all over the castle are tacky, poorly-made tapestries = magnifique.

A Surfeit of Shadows: The Shadow Magazine Volume 1 #s 76-127

shadow_magazine_vol_1_109Yeah.

So.

Books 76-somewhere around 110ish (which covers around two years of publishing time, 1935-1937) were GREAT, uniformly 8/10s or 9/10s and there were some really great stand-outs in that bunch. There was The Python and Zemba, which were 11/10s. There’s also The Voodoo Master and it’s follow-up, City of Doom. Those deserve individual write-ups and I may do them later.

What makes those particular ones great is the antagonists. Doctor Mocquino, The Python, and Zemba are supervillains not only because they have hordes of minions but because they are are intelligent, and they also are constantly on the offensive. When The Shadow–himself a highly aggressive superfoe of crime–is forced onto the defensive, it raises the stakes and it ups the pacing. A smart, aggressive villain (who also commands sufficient firepower, because, let’s face it, at this point everybody knows that’s the only way around the mammoth .45 automatics that are looming for you otherwise), is one of the things that sets a great Shadow story apart from a mediocre one.

I must even mention The Yellow Door in which–hold on to your hats–Harry Vincent DOES NOT GET SLUGGED OVER THE HEAD AND HOLDS HIS OWN UNTIL THE VERY LAST CHAPTER, upon which, yes, he then needs to be rescued, but not before! I know, shocking, right? Mind you, this does come right after The Gray Ghost, in which he lets the damsel of the novel get to his head and then jumps in front of The Shadow’s automatics at the wrong moment but also never mind.

shadow_magazine_vol_1_123But, unfortunately, then there was a really rough patch in the hundred-teens, reaching an embarrassing nadir in Washington Crimes in which The Shadow fails to disclose the solution to the problem that, admittedly, he solved in chapter one (which would have negated much suffering–most of it his own), is outsmarted in chapter two, spends 95% of the book rushing around the vicinity of Washington whilst being two steps behind both antagonists and, in general, does everything but trip over his own cloak hem throughout.

(In this lot is also the first of the Theodore Tinsley-authored books, Partners in Peril, which was apparently wholesale plagiarized for some of the early Batman stories, and believe me, it shows. Both of these I skipped. The shift from “crime pulp” to “adventure pulp” is not seamless, Tinsley was given the keys and went for a ride, but didn’t even attempt to mimic Walter B. Gibson’s voice. This might probably be a good thing overall, but….

I might return to them later, but then again, I might not.)

And the uncomfortable thing about hitting this patch is that it jolted my immersion. It’s a lot easier to pick apart something that’s poorly done, than something you’re actively enjoying….and unfortunately that run did it. I started analyzing the prose and the structure rather more than I had been for the last (yes, okay) hundred-plus books. Gibson has a pretty distinctive sentence structure, for one thing. If I actually remembered anything about grammar I’d expound on that, but never mind.

Anyhow, what were some of the things I didn’t like? Well:

Heavy reliance on the Lamont Cranston identity, sometimes in back-to-back stories, and without varying the formula. Some of the best books in the series thus far are when The Shadow takes on a completely different identity, often revealed only at the very tail end of the novel as the ultimate–or penultimate–or may be just one other twist in a series of twists. Terror Island, and The Broken Napoleons, for instance. The “Cranston takes a vague yet pointed interest in helping the police with their inquiries” plot wears thin when the same beats play out time after time and yet neither Cardona nor Weston figure things out even slightly.

Not using The Shadow’s agents. I meme the hell out of Harry Vincent, sure, but he serves a valuable narrative purpose when he gets to be on-screen–edd_cartier_28shadow_unmasks29_002

–especially when he gets to be on-screen with other Shadow agents, such as Cliff Marsland, Clyde Burke, or Hawkeye. They add humanity, they add tension (generally, yes, because we know Harry Vincent is going to screw up and are waiting to see how), and by their positioning on the chessboard they serve to show, not tell, how much smarter, better-prepared, and better-equipped The Shadow is than the crooks he fights. Speaking of which, we haven’t seen anything of Miles Crofton lately, or The Shadow’s autogyro in general. Crofton’s rather cool, there should be more of him. (Jericho Druke does get a moment to shine in The Golden Masks, though.)

Anyhow, conversely to the first point, that The Shadow is great when lurking in a totally new personality, another way the agents are useful is to showcase The Shadow in his own personality rather than one of his assumed guises. And….it’s pretty neat to watch how this guy commands instant respect whenever he switches on. At the same time, he can comfort the distraught and reassure the innocent with the understated calm that wins their confidence and restores their courage for the fight.

shadow_magazine_vol_1_106Not building on what was already established, and poorly-structured plots in general. These late novels read like some of the forgettable early ones, in which there is very little actual plot–just a lot of events happening, through which our hero stumbles and over which he has very little control. Not to mention having to frequently zigzag between one plot-point and location to another. One of the things that should set The Shadow apart from other superheroes, such as (pfui) Batman, is that he’s a hero who controls events rather than just reacting to them. Without this, there’s a big chunk missing.

Fortunately, the rough patch ended with The Masked Headsman, and there’s also the standout Quetzal. Now, Quetzal actually is kind of a borderline case, because while it has some of the features I just listed as flaws–use of the Lamont Cranston identity where “Lamont Cranston” has only the thinnest of excuses for being involved, lack of the usual agents, mostly detailing how movement from Point A to Point B is accomplished, and largely reactive rather than active hero–it’s….actually still kind of a great Shadow novel.

In QuetzalThe Shadow is flying down to the west/southwestern border areas to investigate and retrieve valuable military documents being offered up by the crime lord known only as Quetzal. In the opening scene he realizes that the plane has gone off-course, quietly reaches for his automatic, and is promptly jumped by every other passenger onboard, including a middle-aged woman with a .38….y’know, this one also cries out for a full-length write-up, so….

And The Masked Headsman features a full return to working order for all parts of The Shadow’s organization. What does a return to normalcy mean? It means: large sums of lawfully-held money at stake, blood having been spilled, more blood en route to spillage if steps are not taken, a cunning but not really cunning enough villain, innocents in the line of fire. It means that The Shadow has his full deductive capacity and sneakiness and physical prowess on deploy.  Also, dirty commies getting blown up by their own leaders in the name of The Cause. Always nice to see that. It even means a return to normal business and the hazards thereof for Harry Vincent, and if you guessed “iron maiden,” then DING you win no prize. (He also gets a hint of a chance of a romance with an exiled Spanish damsel, who is not actually playing him for a dupe in the process! It’s amazing!)

(There are also two, count ’em, two Mad Scientists with Beautiful Daughters.)

At this point, this write-up is long enough in and of itself, so I’ll leave out the discussion of 1937’s The Shadow Strikes and 1938’s International Crime, which were some of the early attempts at adapting The Shadow to the screen, and quite weird attempts they are indeed.

Rated: Yeah. So…..

Wolves (2014) – Movie Review

So a while ago I watched Wolves, which TVTROPES helpfully describes as a 2014 throwback to old-fashioned monster movies. It’s a throwback of some kind, but, and y’know what, it’s wins Best In Show to my eye. It’s got monstrous–but charismatic–villains, quirky side characters who are allowed to be characters, a heroic hero who matures and changes; a damsel who might need rescuing, but only once and only from the big bad, not the mooks, which I feel is a totally fair scenario. Also, I really needed something decent and non-brain-challenging to watch today.

Anyhow, in my book, a good movie, regardless of genre or ultimate letter grade does several things:

– Leans into it’s concept and lets the story build on the ideas inherent into it. Werewolf = super strength = I can throw these haybales into the barn loft single-handed. Compare and contrast this to Outlander (2008), which does do not a single stinking thing with it’s concept. You’ve got space marine plus vikings vs alien monster! And it did nothing with it! The space marine loses his space armor and space guns immediately; the vikings never go sailing, pillaging, or really get to do any effective fighting, let alone with bearded axes; and the entire movie could have been transplanted somewhere else, such as the modern day, with only changes to the dialogue–not the plot, not the characters, not the setup. Hell, it could just as easily have been Cowboys ‘n Injuns vs Alien Monsters. Admittedly, I’d watch that movie, but only if it starred Ben Johnson.

– Allows characters other than the main leads to have personalities. A lot of stories fall into the trap of having secondary characters exist only for the sake of helping and bolstering the hero’s story. Hero falls off a cliff? The mentor is hanging around at the bottom to pick up the pieces, for no other reason than the plot needed them to be there. Hero has lost clothes and guns in a freak boating accident? A kindly old couple by the lakeside have nothing else better to do with their deceased son’s clothes and guns than provide them to some naked rando who just swam ashore. Hero breaks into the vet’s office to steal medicines? The veterinarian stitches him up free of charge, and let me tell you that is the most unrealistic version yet. At best, you’re getting half off on the tranquilizers, and we had to wake up the tech for X-rays, so you’re paying full price for those. In this movie? When the heroine meekly asks if his wife might, perhaps, have a spare blouse, John promptly gives a squint-eyed grin and hollers for his wife to take off her shirt. Or the heroine’s drunk sister loudly declaring that she knew it, she recognized Cayden’s scent the first time she smelled it…okay, fine, we all did, but I DID IT FIRST! Or the town wolves’ subdued resentment against Cayden for…existing?

Lets things happen promptly. The very most basic thing that separates good of any grade, any genre, any kind or type, from bad is: the plot keeps moving along the correct path, without either random digressions or extraneous padding.

Then there are the more minor–but still important–things this movie does right. And all of these are worth expounding on, but I’m getting hungry, so suffice it to say that I really appreciate:

– This movie allows for the fact that your audience is human, and wants to see law-abiding / morally-sound humans win and dangerous animals (or criminals who look and act like them) lose.

– The mere and simple fact that rifles and ANFO bombs beat werewolves, and it’s without the kind of ridiculous escalation you’d see in a higher-budget movie or a Monster Hunter Nation story (GUN! OTHER GUN! BIGGER GUN! ANOTHER BIGGER GUN WITH BIGGER BULLETS! ANOTHER WEREWOLF WITH BIGGER JAWS! FLAMETHROWER! SMALLER GUN WITH SILVER BULLETS! MORE GUNS! And then by that time you have to beat the poor thing over the head a couple of times to put it out of your misery. Unnecessary and excessive.) I like this take a lot better. A healing factor is a healing factor, not a restore-life-from-last-save-point factor when you’ve just gotten a major artery punctured by high velocity lead injection, or your brain has been scrambled by a hollowpoint to the eyesocket. Or your arms and legs have been torn off and the stumps cauterized by explosives. (Note: this movie is rated, at most, PG-13. There is no excessive gore, nudity, or costly violence.)

– A heroic hero. Cayden starts out conflicted. He makes mistakes and hurts people–but regrets it and struggles against his darker nature. He also makes mistakes when he tries to fight without going all the way–and learns that sometimes, you have no choice but to fight to kill. And even then, being a hero, Cayden offers his enemies one last chance out. Caden is allowed to use violence, and he becomes, through the course of the movie, someone who can use it responsibly.

The miscellaneous: there’s smoking in this movie. Tollerman and Connor both smoke Cool Guy pipes and Wild Joe puffs on a wild-boy cigar. Somehow you don’t see that very much, these days.

The bad: honestly, the worst I have to say about it is that the transformed werewolves (humans in slightly-ripped but generally bicep- or midriff-baring clothing + furry wolf masks) look silly, and the fight scenes are correspondingly underwhelming.

The cast: Lucas Till and Stephen McHattie are both excellent. Till plays a square-jawed yet fresh-faced and cowlicked hero with enough conviction to make me mostly overlook the fact that he’s…not an actor with a great range. On the other hand, he’s well-written, and he’s got enough nuance in his voiceover / narration performance to pull it off. McHattie, though, steals the show in every scene he’s in. On paper, he’s the standard mentor/paterfamilias figure…in practice, he’s sly, cool, dignified, clever, and completely in command of both his pipe, the camera, and his southern drawl. Jason Momoa is his standard gruff-voiced alpha (huh) male. The guy might have good abs but you will not convince me he’s a good actor. Also, the guy who plays Wild Joe, whose name I did not remember to look up on IMDB before writing this, is very good, although honestly all he has to do is ham it up and go RRRAAA once or twice. He hams very well.

Merritt Patterson, as the female lead…doesn’t get as much from the script as Till does, as is therefore a lot blander. Still, she does her best at a moderately thankless damsel / love-interest, and as such isnt’t bad. Her semi-alcoholic sister was a lot more entertaining to watch and arguably cuter, but never mind. It’s bad show to have alcoholic love interests, and love interests don’t necessarily need personalities, anyway. And…honestly, that’s about it.

The plot: So things are good for Cayden Slaughter (subtle, movie, subtle.) He’s a football QB, aka local demigod, in a small town; has loving parents and a hot girlfriend–and yet things are somehow wrong. His parents are worried about his recurring nightmares; his flashes of inexplicable strength and dramatic rage cause outright injury to a football rival…not to mention that no girl likes being bitten full-on, in the face, or viciously clawed during a makeout session. The idea he’s losing his mind seems to be promptly proven right when he wakes up one morning to find blood on his hands and his parents….slaughtered. Oh, and a patrol car rolling up since his now-ex girlfriend reported him for assault.

It takes all of five minutes for this to happen. See what I said about things moving promptly?

Cayden is horrified, terrified, and grieving. But pragmatic. He goes on the run for an unspecified amount of time, trying to stay ahead of his terrible killer instinct–or abilities. This lasts for all of one scene, at which point we the audience are reassured that, yes, Cayden is the hero here. He wolfs out again–semi-voluntarily, to rescue a truck stop lot lizard from a couple of abusive bikers–leaving them dead, her alive and running away screaming, and himself with a new ride and leather jacket. (Also incidentally, we and Cayden learn from a TV broadcast that he was adopted.)

But we’re dealing with a young, clean-cut hero here. Cayden isn’t the kind of grizzled, weary anti-hero who can or intends to live this kind of life for his entire, well, life. We, the audience, get to hear his narrated thoughts. He has been looking for a solution….it’s just that there seems to be one way out: suicide.

Fortunately (or so it seems) for Cayden, at this point he meets Wild Joe, a loner werewolf who points him in the direction of Lupine Ridge (SUBTLE, MOVIE), where most of the werewolves live and the most vicious secretive pack on God’s green Earth are, before vanishing to the roof to watch him go. (I just noticed that Cayden apparently motorcycles through St. Louis on his way to Lupine Ridge. Okay, random way of showing he’s traveling through the midwest, especially since he’s supposed to be keeping a low profile on the run, but sure.)

So anyhow, Cayden finally arrives in Lupine Ridge and instantly finds himself the center of attention at the only bar in town. Which might be a good thing when the attention is coming from the hot bartender, but is less so when it’s also coming from the rough-looking type at a table in the back (Jason Momoa: Connor [wait for it] Slaughter), or from the calm old guy at a corner booth who smokes a pipe and watches what goes on without speaking (John McHattie: John Tollerman). Or the shifty guy who tries to pick a fight (some actor.) Or the other shifty kind of guy who just stares a lot (some actor: some shifty guy who will meet no good end. I think his arm gets bitten off.)

Tollerman offers Cayden (aka Danny) a job on his farm and things seem to be going well for a while (read: for the space of one scene.) A home is offered, no prying is done, and no questions are asked, even with Cayden hauling gigantic rocks out of the ground by hand and hurling 50-pound haybales into the hayloft without tools and scaring the animals just by walking past. Oh, and chopping wood shirtless. That’s always a good sign.

Cue Connor-Momoa showing up to ask said questions instead. Tollerman covers: Danny is his nephew, whom he originally didn’t recognize at first; and incidentally, Danny, stay out of Connor’s way.

The next morning, there’s a slaughtered (GEDDIT), gutted sheep in one of the pens. Tollerman, however, seems to blame hungry wolves from up in the hills…what else could it be, Danny boy? OH HAH, THEY’RE HAVING LAMB FOR SUPPER BUT CAYDEN CHOOSES TO START WITH SALAD LOL HOW DID I MISS THAT BEFORE. Good one, movie.

Anyhow, Cayden also pursues a closer acquaintance with the hot bartender (Merritt Patterson: Angelina), in defiance of the advice given him by the shifty-eyed guy–who warns him to get out of down before he gets them all killed. He doesn’t know who Cayden is, but he’ll figure it out and when he does, man….(cue both of them noticing that Connor is on the other side of the parking lot, smoking a pipe and watching, uh oh.)

Hot Bartender Angel and Cayden bond over both being orphans, as people tend to.

Meanwhile, shifty-eyed guy is executed by wolf after a brief interrogation. Honestly, I realize that running is really the natural reaction, but surely there’s a point at which someone is going to try and climb a tree…or put their back to it and try to fight. Oh well. Angel and Cayden stumble over the evil wolf camp in the woods, where the pack is, well, they’re eating him.

Angel reveals that, yes, she knows about it; she knows Cayden is a wolf; and the Tollermans also reveal that they (HAH) TiVo’d the news report about him. Mr. Tollerman is a wolf, too. In fact, most of the townspeople are, and Cayden really is his nephew. His mother, Lucinda, was his sister’s daughter–a pureblooded werewolf of the old lines. Connor raped Lucinda; the Tollermans took her in, faked her death, and then adopted Cayden out…only for Lucinda to commit suicide and Connor to run completely off the rails.

There’s been an arrangement for years: the wild pack runs in the hills (and has been steadily devolving, spending less time in human form and more time as animals); the town wolves tend to live totally as humans, intermarrying with them (“I just like men with chest hair”) and both sides are supposed to keep a low profile and maintain the secret. Problem is: Connor’s getting older, and he wants a pure-bred son. With Angel–the last remaining pureblood. And Angel, lest her remaining family be murdered, perforce has to go along with it.

Our hero and heroine bond some more over being orphans…Caden self-made, and Angel’s via murder-suicide. She and her sister have never managed to decide whether it was the wolf, the man, or the alcohol that did it. Angel tries to reassure him that he doesn’t have the soul of a killer, and also that being a wolf can be kind of a sweet deal, actually. Especially if your girlfriend is also a wolf as well. (Tollerman is very careful to announce his presence before he enters the barn, one discrete timelaps later.)

Next on the agenda is a council of war….but the town wolves aren’t very sanguine about their chances against the wild ones–especially if Connor finds out that his destined babymama has been fooling around with the stranger from out of town. Some of them are basically fully human and haven’t changed shape in years. (“Yeah, I can barely grow my sideburns anymore. Just a little fuzz. Hic!”) They’re totally willing to overlook livestock going missing, children going missing, and Angel being given to Connor…

…Cayden isn’t. “Stay in your homes tonight. And lock your doors.” See what I said above, about heroes. I like this one. [Oh boy, I’m visualizing my next attempted watch party…]

Unfortunately, since we’re only about halfway through the movie, what happens is a) Connor finds out that Cayden is Lucinda’s son, b) doesn’t care, c) Cayden gets his ass kicked and d) barely manages to throw himself off a cliff to presumed-certain death but actual safety. In his defense, he’s fighting an entire pack of people in biker vests and fuzzy masks sorry, wolves. Also, e) Caydenwolf has a poofy cowlick just like the human form does, lol.

Anyhow, who should turn up at this point but Wild Joe, a barely less undesirable alternative to the actual pack of veral wolves. But he does provide Cayden enough impetus to get up and limp back home to Angel and Tollerman, and, once Cayden regroups (seems that wolfing out + vigorous wolfy exercise is the secret to instant healing), the council of war reconvenes. It’s a council of two, and they’re the only people who can or will fight. They have no choice but to, at this point! But at this point, they’re going to fight smart.

Cue ANFO and shotguns, and needless to say, I officially love this movie. Mind you, this movie doesn’t appear to actually know what ANFO is, because the bombs appear to be made of cow manure and gunpowder from shotgun shells stuffed into burlap sacks, but at least they tried.

But Connor moves faster than expected, snatches the home folk, and leaves a cordial wedding invitation written in what’s either blood or very smeary red ink. Huh. Which is it? I consider this a decent question because all parties, when we see them that night at the, uh, party, appear to be in one piece–including Clara and John. So…where did the red ink come from? Were those invites printed off ahead of time or written ahead of time? I mean…that would kind of make more sense than carrying around a bottle of liquid ink, right? Or did one of the pack wolves cut themselves and write it?

Anyhow. Party. Connor, it might be added, is wearing a gigantic pimp coat + hat. One wonders if that’s what Momoa showed up in and they just had to roll with it, because it looks even stupider than his usual outfits. ConnorMomoa is playing this off a bit weirdly, too, actually–he’s been fairly intense and straightforward so far, but at this point he’s going for a bit of broad comedy and it’s weird. Funny, but weird. I guess he’s supposed to be drunk and playing to the crowd. Nevertheless.

(Angel is dressed up in a strategically-shredded white dress and she’s also tied to a tree and drugged.)

So, by the way, remember that shifty guy from the beginning who I thought got his arm ripped off? My bad, he actually gets his throat cut when Cayden takes out the sentries. Nice.

Anyhow, Cayden arrives in time to object to the wedding, fling Connor’s delusions of wolfhood in his face, and then….not get his ass kicked, because this time he’s fighting the way a hero should fight when the time comes to fight: all-out. No, that’s not the point of this scene. The point is, BIG FIGHT, MUCH RARRR, and this time even Angel gets in on the action. She breaks Tollerman out of the cage–to go enact part B of the plan AKA things go explodey down at the farm–but stays with the human Clara and her almost-human sister Gail to guard them. (That’s actually very smart play on the filmmakers’ part, since it allows for the heroes to run around and do hero menfolk things with the focus on the action, without crowding the battlefield and storyline with excess characters.)

Cayden, like a hero does, gives his enemies one last warning. Then some things go boom and a bunch of wolves get killed, including one who gets shot in the head while he’s standing in the middle of the front yard arguing with Connor, oh that was delicious. NICE. Then they get lured into the barn and the barn blows up all explodeylike, except that Connor leaps out of the flames and tears off his vest which would be a lot more interesting if he wasn’t all FurryMomoa at the moment, MOVIE.

Anyhow, FurryMomoa fights Cowlickwolf. Much GRR. Shwoosh arrrr vrrrr. Etc. And if you’re wondering why John Tollerman, with his rifle, isn’t just shooting the villain, it’s because a) Cayden tells him not to, b) he was reloading. Connor, with his dying breath (I presume it’s dying, anyway, because he turns back into a shirtless Jason Momoa, and OF COURSE THE CAMERA STAYS STEADFASTLAY ABOVE HIS CLAVICLE) protests that he actually loved Lucinda and had to take the fall for her getting pregnant so her father wouldn’t kill her.

At this point, Wild Joe turns up to taunt Connor a bit. Turns out, Wild Joe was exiled from town by Connor’s father (for being too wild…the mind boggles)…and now, poetic irony, the son destroys the father whose father destroyed the son and also who ate the brother, how the table turns, best served cold, etc, except that in Wild Joe’s case he probably just bashes it against a rock so it quits wiggling and blows on it a couple of times. Joe is, in fact, so busy gloating that he lets slip that he actually killed Cayden’s adoptive parents.

(“You did what?”
“What?”)

So Cayden attacks Wild Joe and gets punched in the face, at which point Connor attacks Wild Joe and Wild Joe rips his throat out. Joe then turns his attentions back to Cayden, but then Tollerman shoots him nonfatally a couple of times or at least until he runs out of ammo and Joe falls over. (“You were never too wild for this town, Joe–just too crazy.”)

Wild Joe then has the nerve to say that wolves–real wolves–only kill for food, or defense. Woooh boy, where to start with that one. a) not true, b) even if so, it doesn’t help your case, c) you’re a moron who just admitted you killed the hero’s adoptive parents in order to manipulate him, killed his biological father, attacked and brutalized him, twice, and then begged for help. And we get the most satisfying line in the movie: “I’m not a wolf, Joe. I’m a human being.”

It’s at this point Joe realizes he’s standing on a bomb, and Cayden is holding a lit match.

So now it’s all over but for burying the bodies in the soybean field and getting breakfast and loading up the motorcycle for a long ride, destination: Dunno, Uncle John, Angel wants to go ANYWHERE THAT IS OUTSIDE OF LUPINE RIDGE. Uncle John bids them goodbye and warns them to be careful of sequel hooks, uh, I mean, werewolves.

So, yeah. That’s this movie. It’s actually pretty good.

Rated: AWOOOOOOOOO

Book Review: Elf Defense – Esther Friesner (repost)

Elf Defense is a 1988 novel by Esther Friesner that…technically…counts as Urban Fantasy. Or more precisely, Suburban Fantasy.

Amanda Taylor, the mortal lover of the King of Elfhame Ultramar (aka America), has fled from him along with his son, Prince Cassiodoron (and Cass’s talking assassin cat) and concealed herself in a sleepy Connecticut small town. Godwin’s Corners, home of quite a few Mayflower-descended snobs, a really fearsome PTA association, and more lawyers than you can shake a stick at, is surely the last place on Earth anyone would dream of looking…
Yeah, he finds them in about three chapters.
But that’s where it gets interesting for Kelerison, King of Elfhame Ultramar, because Amanda Taylor has availed herself of this new mortal thing called a divorce lawyer…

Pros:
– This book is really funny.
– This book is really well-written.
– This book is not YA. This book contains, instead of hormonal teenagers written by a hormonal twenty-something, actually sentient beings acting in a rational manner. And, my God, was it refreshing to read.
– Slight spoiler: the characters are interesting and the novel is cleverly structured to a) slowly diminish the presumed threat, and b) subtly build up the ultimate villain with clever foreshadowing. (well…I thought it was clever, since I didn’t see it coming, anyway.) 
– Shut Up Elves! This being a novel of the 80s-90s Fantasy Boom, the elves hit all the basic elf checkboxes: handsome, inhuman, glamorous, enchanting, powerful, manipulative…but, refreshingly, they aren’t worshipped by anyone, least of all the author. Cass is unflinchingly called on his bullshit by everyone involved, including the talking cat and the girl wholeheartedly in love with him; Syndovar is recognized as a cold-hearted fanatic (even if people are rather too scared of him to, y’know, tell him off about it); and the entire freaking plot, to repeat, is suing the King of the Elves for a CC Dissolution W/Out Children.
And yet, at the same time, elves are credible as fantastic beings of knowledge and ancient power….and, yeah, are kinda sexy. Even if Cass hasn’t gotten any since 1843. (SNERK)
– And then there are just some bits that are downright funny. I mean, appart from the premise of suing the elf king for a divorce. Dracophobia gravis and all its diagnosed permutations. “Elfhame Ultramar is not paradise, but it does have a balanced ecology. Fools are always at the bottom of the food chain.” The sentient hedge-maze deciding that an unplanned trimming is not worth keeping the party separated….
– Cesare the artistic assassin cat is worth a star all unto himself.
– The fact that the freaking king of the elves was a hair metal rock star…with a single that was number thirty-seven for two whole weeks…called “Demon Lover”…had me in stitches.

Cons:
– Elves in America is always kind of a tricky one. These aren’t bound by the old compacts; they are by (SPOILER!) the Latin Law….meh. EF should have gone whole hog, and, as they are as much American immigrants as the Mayflower families, have based their society on, wait for it, the Constitution. Give me some freaking Second Amendment elves with a tacticool obsession. Give me Federalist-obsessed elves who quote Cato. Say their whole society has based itself on human society, circa 1790. Say they contrast themselves haughtily with the old-guard stratified courts back home. What about Confederate elves?? COME ON YOU KNOW stuck-up aristocrats would have totally identified with the Confederates. How’s that for problematic?

Anyhow, this is all a bit heavy for a suburban fantasy starring a married, Jewish lawyer with a five year old daughter and a history professor husband, but the fact remains that the elf society isn’t very fleshed out, and the shocking reveals that are, uh, revealed, are kind of…empty and underwhelming.

– I really liked the villain, even though he was in the wrong, and was upset that he went down like a chump. He was kinda badass and deserved a better end.

-…um….that seems to be just about all of the cons to it.

Rated: simply because few things are perfect, nine poisoned mice out of ten.

Jim Butcher is on thin ice, whether he knows it or not

If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.

When a fan of a book series decides to publically take offense, in a forum comprised of other fans, at a single line depicting a character’s thoughts, the chumming has already begun. And this is just the one place that I know about. Undoubtedly there are other cesspits where the discussion is proceeding likewise. I predict that he’s going to get avalanched if he so much as sticks a toe out of line whenever the next blowup happens. He’s too big of a public figure–a known figure–to allow him to not bend the knee.

Reading through the rest of the thread is kind of eerie. There’s one (1) call for sanity; there’s a lot more casting around for other topics to be offended at. Once upon a time, I would have said, for other topics to mock. (remembering being able to spork terrible and even semi-terrible novels? Those things were vicious, but I don’t recall anyone getting cancelled because of them). The most notable character of melanin being an honest-to-possibly-God Paladin, that’s something to be offended by. Police being depicted as mostly well-intentioned and hard-working at the street level, with a generous sprinkling of rotten bad apples and incompetent leadership? Very much not Current Year-acceptable.

The line in question is from Side Jobs. Murphy’s monologue reflects:

“Stop arresting Marcone’s most profitable pimps.” Instead, we get a long speech about racial and socioeconomic profiling. We get screams from political action committees.

The slightly longer quote is (yeah, I went and dug out my copy to transcribe it):

THE POLICE KNOW where Marcone can be reached. Finding him doesn’t do diddly to let us nail him. The fact that he has his fingers in so many pies means that not only do we have to work against Marcone and his shadowy empire, but we have our own superiors and politicians breathing down our necks as well. Oh, they never say anything directly, like, “Stop arresting Marcone’s most profitable pimps.” Instead, we get a long speech about racial and socioeconomic profiling. We get screams from political action committees. We get vicious editorial pieces in the newspapers and on TV.

We mostly stay quiet and keep plugging away at our jobs. Experience has taught us that hardly anyone ever cares what we think or have to say. They demand answers, but they don’t want to listen.

Or Harry’s bird sanctuary speech from Cold Days. 

“Uh,” I said, feeling somewhat off balance. “What do I think of gay guys?”

“Yes.”

“Boink and let boink, more or less.”

Enough to hang a man for?

You decide.

Dark Avenger’s Sidekick – John C Wright – Repost Review

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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 Oecumeneif 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.)

Problem 3:
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.

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(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.

Green Knight’s Squire – John C Wright – Repost Review

swan-knight-son-640x1024The Green Knight’s Squire is a YA Urban-slash-High-slash-Christian Fantasy trilogy by John C. Wright. The three books are: Swan Knight’s Son, Feast of the Elfs, and Swan Knight’s Sword. The trilogy is the first part of a 12-book series, Moth & Cobweb, of which 6 books have been published. (Review of Dark Avenger’s Sidekick to follow)

Short review: It’s quite good. Extremely Catholic, somewhat long-winded, but quite good. I strongly believe JCW’s writing career would do way better if he met an editor who could a) freaking make him stop monologuing, b) seriously, tone down the Catholic-ness, c) stop it with the sadomasochism and gross torture descriptions. Fortunately, (c) is not a problem in this book.

Nevertheless, and this is important, when Mr. Wright gets in gear and writes, he writes well, and I don’t think there is a single author today who uses language as well as he does. Some of work is downright Vancian: mood, setting, and descriptions are clear, vivid, picturesque, and sometimes, brilliant. Also, there’s a lot of pure homage to G. K. Chesterton, which is worth a star unto itself…but we’ll get into that in a minute.

Plot: Swan Knight’s Son is about a modern-day boy’s journey to becoming a knight. The fact that his mother is Ygraine of the Riddles, a Swan May, his dog talks and is an elf spy, he can understand the speech of animals and birds, and that there is a magic door in their house that follows them across country and opens to a moonlit room with his father’s armor, makes this a little easier for him than it would be for a strictly normal modern-day boy. On the other hand, he does end up in jail…

feast_960Feast of the Elfs
follows Gil as he is recruited into The Last Crusade by the man in the dark room from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, swears allegiance to King Arthur, attends the titular Feast, meets The Green Knight–yes, the same one as in the Arthurian saga, what a coincidence–and finagles actual weapons training out of the elf king’s champion. This being part two of a trilogy, it ends on a down note as Gil loses his father’s sword–one of the Thirteen Treasures of Lyonesse–and has to be rescued by his mermaid girlfriend.

In Swan Knight’s Sword, Gil (spoiler!) gets his father’s sword back, returns to the court of the elves, declares himself openly as the Swan Knight’s son, restores his mother’s honor, gains the respect of knights and kings, everything goes just fine and all wrongs are righted and his mom meets his girlfriend and is okay with it (whew!)…ready to live happily ever after and have more adventures when the time comes.

Pros:
– Wright’s command of language is, of course, worth full marks. I’ve already mentioned the associated downside of this, that he lets his tendency to floridness get away with him, but the upside is lavish descriptions, witty dialogue, and outlandish but utterly logical scenarios that range from the ludicrously sensible to eye-rollingly brilliant.
– Building off that thought, one real strength of these books and Wright’s stuff in particular is his ability to mix and match elements of other works, literature, classic movies, classical mythology, chivalric romances, etc…and make them work. For instance: Batman (well, actually, The Shadow) plus Norse Mythology? But of course: it’s a homage to the disguises of Odin, who walked anonymously abroad in a broad hat and muffling cloak, clouding the minds of men that they did not see what was before their very eyes. Part two of the Moth & Cobweb series does this even better by introducing Tomorrow “Tom Swift” Moth, the gadget and science hero. (Sidenote: Tom Swift was one of the very young Rider’s first SF heroes. I was incredibly chuffed to find someone else had read and remembered those books.)
– Besides being able to make literary themes match together and work, Wright is also able to pull off what would otherwise be the most ridiculous juxtapositions ever. In book 1, Gil wants to train as a knight, but can only find a bear…a talking bear, naturally…who can teach him to fight. The training regimen? Daily practice in bear crawls [WHICH ARE A REAL EXERCISE, LOL], bear hugs, roaring, and playing dead….all of which Gil later uses when fighting. Bravo. I loved it.
– ….and some of the dialogue is brief, snappy, and genuinely witty. SOME of it.
– Ruff–Sgeolan son of Iolan–spy of the elfs, is one of the best dogs and worst spies ever. In fact, all of the talking animals were well-done, including the spider who gets ticked at Gil for letting her dinner out of the web.
– “We thought this was a Kwanzaa tree!” Politically-correct fairies are the best fairies.

Cons: Everybody talks too much, talks like a professor of English Literature who has been mainlining Arthurian literature and is extremely anxious to tell you all about it. And if you aren’t Catholic, well, prepare to let your eyes glaze over at points.

I’m not really exaggerating on the first point. In Feast of the Elfs, it takes all of nine pages before a swansword_960-500x800-1character starts talking at very extended length (he starts on page eight. By page nine I decided it was probably a monologue. By page fourteen there was no doubt and I skipped to the end. On page eighteen.)

And as far as the second…well, what else can you call the scene where Gil, rightfully skeptical about a “law enforcement” job that requires no skills, ID, training, or prior experience, asks what it is. The Man in the Dark Room (AKA, Mr. Sunday from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…AKA, God) replies: “Martyrdom.” ….Yeah. It’s not the random, minor jabs against Protestantism (poking fun at other denominations in good faith and humor is totally understandable); it’s the smug attitude and on-the-nose preachiness that I find wearisome.

All in all: I liked it, I read all three books in a single afternoon, and I do really recommend it.

Rated: Nine and a half flaming swords out of thirteen