Friday, February 16, 2018

Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein

Daughter of the Sword
by Steve Bein

Dr. Steve Bein was born in Oak Park, Illinois near Chicago several decades ago.  As a young man he would attend university in a wide variety of places, his native Illinois, Germany, Hawaii, Nanzan and Obirin universities.  It was there that he would translate works of Zen Buddhism and eventually earn a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Hawaii. He also picked up black belts in 2 forms of American martial arts and dabbled in a number of others.  Today he teaches at the University of Dayton Ohio, where he lives with his partner and their dog.  Dr. Bein has a number of short fictions published in Asimov's, Interzone and Writers of the Future.  Today's review is his first published novel, released in 2012 with two sequels released since then and a pair of kindle only side stories set in the same world.  

Daughter of the Sword takes place mostly in 2010 Tokyo and tells us the story of Mariko Oshiro, Tokyo's first and so far only woman detective.  I have to admit at first I was skeptical of this, as while Japan is more traditional about gender roles than the United States, this is still the 21st century!  However after a lot of research, including going to a number of message boards and asking because I couldn't read the Japanese sources (special thanks to the posters of  It turns out to be shockingly plausible. The first woman chief of police was only installed in 2013 and Tokyo itself only allowed woman police officers to be stationed in Kobans (local police Kiosk from what I understand) a few years ago.  So I suppose I was being a bit Americentric there.  Anyway, let's look at Detective Oshiro shall we?  Mariko is a driven and ambitious lady, having spent her girlhood in the United States, she feels somewhat removed from Japanese society.  Her isolation from Japanese society is reinforced throughout the novel by a good number of people commenting how direct and rude she is.  This is compounded by the fact that her ambition to be a police officer on the front lines is a goal that, most of her elders agree, a good Japanese girl shouldn't have.  Mariko herself questions this, not having those ambitions, but why she is so dead set on achieving them in Japan when she could easily just light out for the United States and be a detective there.  Instead, she’s thrown herself into the Tokyo police department and done well. For example she has, after a lot of sweat, blood, and tears gotten into the narcotics unit only to have her new Lt. (oh we'll get to him) over rule her deployment ideas for a sting and she finds her little sister Saori get swept up in the bust.  Saori, unlike Mariko, isn't ambitious; she is however a drug addict.  As you can guess this is a stormy relationship that runs throughout the novel but isn't the center focus.  It's a fairly standard relationship between a junkie family member and a cop.  Saori is upset that Mariko shows up when she's trying to buy drugs and then will demand that Mariko get her out of trouble.  She’s also completely unrepentant for any wrongdoing while acting as the wronged party.  Honestly I don't really care for Saori but I'm not supposed to.  To Dr. Bein's credit, he doesn't spend enough time on Saori to allow her to get too annoying.  She's established in the plot and then efficiently set forth to make her contribution to the plot.  It's a bit mechanical honestly but I prefer that to some writers who will drag it out and cause me to grind my teeth.

The center focus is on swords.  Many centuries ago, there existed a master swordsmith, Inazuma.  His swords were so well made that the rest of Japan wouldn’t catch up for 200 years, in fact Inazuma's abilities were so great that it was commonly believed that his three greatest swords had magical powers. When Mariko is exiled by her Lt to investigating an attempted burglary of a sword, that's when we meet Professor Yasuo Yamada, who is the owner of one Inazuma sword and on a mad quest to destroy another.  Unfortunately for him the last person he brought into the quest took the sword in question, went rogue and decided that what he needed to do was steal the good Professors sword as well. Just as an extra complication, the man in question is a member of the Yakuza and so has access to all sorts of underground resources to make this happen.  Also, because Mariko doesn't have enough problems, Professor Yamada is pretty much blind, although thanks to decades of training is still a fairly powerful swordsman.  He's also a bit of mystery being a scholar of the history of swordsmithing and swordsmanship with a number of books to his name and a number of friends in high places.  He serves as sort of a mentor to Mariko here, teaching her some history and some swordplay as well as using his friends in high places to get her the resources she needs to investigate the crimes in question.

Which is a good thing because Mariko is going to need every scrap of help she can find, beg, barter or steal because her opponent, Fuchida Shuzo, isn't just a member of an underground crime organization but also a skilled swordsman himself, and insane.  Fuchida is strangely one of the parts of the book I enjoy the most in a cringing way.  He's a monster who has no care for his fellow human beings, to the point of holding most of them in contempt.  That said many of his criticism of Japanese society are painfully on the nose and could apply just as well to American society.  For example, he sneers at the salarimen of Japan for working long grueling hours and then going to a bar to suck up to a boss that doesn't really care about them, to advance in a job that none of them really care about.  He's wrong to hold his fellow humans in contempt but he's right that it makes no sense to kill yourself for a system that at best views you as an easily replaceable cog.  Mariko herself is less then thrilled with Japanese culture but unlike Fuchida she chooses to fight it head on, while Fuchida chooses to hold himself aloof.  On the flip side it's not like Fuchida cares about people either, he's a cold blooded user of men and women in a manic pursuit of his goal. Ironically however, while Fuchida might be the death of Mariko and her family, it's Mariko's Lt. that takes up most of the antagonists duties in the plot.

Lt. Ko on the other hand is an old disgruntled man who makes no bones about believing that Mariko should content herself to serving coffee and letting her ass get pinched by any jr. officer with delusions of competency and be thankful for the attention.  He's open about it in a way that I haven't run into inside the United States (although I'm sad to say I wouldn't to be shocked if I had woman readers who have.  Disappointed in my fellow countrymen, but not shocked).  We don't learn a lot about Ko in this story, his job is mostly to refuse Mariko resources, try to sabotage her,  and mock her to her face in the kind of unprofessional display that would make even hollywood bosses sneer in disgust.   I did find it interesting that neither Ko or Mariko actually their shared personality traits.  Ko is rude by American standards, never you mind Japanese ones.  He's the only one willing to tell Mariko to her face that he thinks this is a boys club and she has no place in it.  He's also very direct and blunt about his plan to simply run her out of the unit and the department if possible.  While Lt. Ko is a nasty, puffed up old bigot seeped in his own self importance and grudges, he's also pretty much the only person in this story who is up front and direct, except for Mariko Oshiro.  Unlike Mariko and Fuchida, Lt. Ko isn't critical of his society but embraces it.  Likely because while Mariko is on the outside due to her gender and Fuchida for being from a crime family, Ko is allowed a pretty cushy position.  

The main story is broken up by three story lines that take place in the past of Japan, showing the past of each of the three swords in question.  Each of the stories is more or less self contained but shows us directly the influence of the swords in question on their wielders.  I honestly enjoyed these more then the main plot but only one of them had any importance to the plot so I am left wondering why they were in the novel.  The nature of one of the other swords is shown in the main plot and is discussed fairly often by the characters themselves.  So they don't feel entirely necessary, and at least one of the stories feels like it's there to pad out the novel a bit.  That said the past storyline that does link into the plot manages to link in a way that is both interesting and somewhat compelling.  That said I did feel somewhat put off by the suggestion that the reason for the abuse of American prisoners in the Philippines was due to a magic sword that induces insane blood lust in it's wielder.  I might be reading to much into it but frankly I don't like subscribing human atrocities to supernatural causes and yes, I would feel the same way if we were talking about American atrocities.  It's the same reason I don't care for stories that suggest Hitler was half demon or some kind of day walking vampire.  When we take these real events and people and suggest their evil sprang from some inhuman source we are distancing ourselves from this behavior and I feel it's important to say that yes, human beings did these things and we have no one to blame but ourselves for our actions.  That's not to suggest that there no goodness in human nature, there is plenty of it in my opinion, only that pretending there is no darkness lurking in the human soul makes it easier to cop out.  I'm sure most people will think I'm just being fussy on this point but these reviews are my opinion, so on some stuff y'all will just have to deal with it.

Daughter of the Sword is a fairly good urban fantasy, it's plotted and written with efficiency comes off as a bit mechanical.  Maybe it's because I’ve done so much reading in this review series. Some developments occur because that's what the plot says should happen, although Dr. Bein does a good job of making sure it fits with the characters motivations and prior actions.  However, when I can tell what Saori's contribution to the plot will be in five pages of her showing up and predict Professor Yamada's fate...  Well I have faith that more practice will help Dr. Bein smooth out the edges there.  The dialogue is well done and the action fairly average in all honesty and Dr. Bein shows a good grasp of Japanese society at least from the view of Mariko who would be both an outsider and an insider.  I found Mariko's position in society realistic as well, I'm the child of deaf parents and even now in my 30s there are elements of hearing culture that I don't follow as well as I should.  That said no one would ever realize that just watching me go about my day.  A fellow Japanese citizen wouldn't be able to tell Mariko wasn't entirely onboard with Japanese culture until they had a prolonged interaction with her and that makes sense.  I'm still hopeful someone will find evidence that there are women detectives in the Tokyo police department however.  Daughter of the Sword by Dr. Steven Bein gets a C.  It's a good read, fun and serviceable but the predictability of the plot and sudden surprises at the end drag it down, as does the mechanical feeling of plot progression.  

Next week, we turn to the future in Altered Carbon.  Keep Reading!   

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Priestess and the Dragon By Nicolette Andrews

The Priestess and the Dragon
By Nicolette Andrews

     Nicolette Andrews was born and raised in San Diego, where she continues to live to this day with her husband and two daughters. Currently self published, her first book, Diviner’s Prophecy was released in 2013. The book we're reviewing today was released in 2015 and can be found on amazon.

     The Priestess and the Dragon is set in a fantasy style Japan (or what I like to call NotJapan, perhaps the second most popular fantasy setting in the last couple decades only beaten out by NotEurope [Editors’s note: for Anime, it’s NotPrussia or NotGermany specifically. See FMA and Attack on Titan]). This Japan seems to be pre-Shogunate as the Emperor still rules the nation with generals and others reporting to him directly. The Emperor and his family claim direct descendant from the Eight, the old gods who created the world. As the Eight rule the cosmos from their heavens, so does the Emperor rule humanity from his palace, or so it goes. Alongside but hidden from humanity live the Yokai. In Japanese folklore Yokai are supernatural creatures that can bring calamity or good fortune on those who encounter them. A good number of the Japanese creatures that you're likely familiar with, like the Kappa or Tengu are considered Yokai. In the story Yokai is used as a catch all term for any creature that is supernatural and immortal but not a god. For the most part the Yokai are hidden from the human world, although some Yokai may choose to interact with humanity. These interactions can run from marrying humans and living with them to hunting down humans and eating them. Only humans who are born with or have trained up a certain level of spiritual power can even see Yokai who don't want to be seen, but Yokai aren't without their vulnerabilities, they can be hurt or killed. Humans can even seal away Yokai with enough strength and knowledge of the right rituals. It's the sealing away part that causes the problems in this story but let's discuss our characters first.

        Our main character Suzume is the daughter of the Emperor who has frankly found herself suffering some hard times. Suzume's mother was one of the wives of the Emperor before she was caught having an affair. Now, given that the Emperor has more wives than sense, that isn't really unusual but getting caught isn't something that gets forgiven. Her mother was banished from the court and the Emperor decided to take the rare step of disowning all of his children with her and banishing them as well. In Suzume's case she was banished to a temple in the North of the country where she would be trained to be a priestess. Suzume is less than thrilled with this and is fairly upset with her mother for letting this happen to her. As part of her training, she is symbolically married to the god of the shrine in a ritual which does not go as planned. Instead of a nice boring religious ritual that traps her in a life she doesn't want Suzume is revealed to have a good amount of untrained spiritual power which shatters the seal of the shrine and wakes up the Dragon sealed within. An imperious dragon who instantly starts barking orders and thinks presuming on the marriage ritual to tease and taunt her is funny. A dragon that sets her teeth on edge and might be the single biggest danger to her in the story (but we'll get to that). The Dragon is actually our second character, Kaito.

       Kaito is a dragon, a shape changing, immortal creature with the kind of power that could make nations tremble. Kaito is also a dragon with problems. Kaito has been imprisoned for centuries and he doesn't know why. Knowing who imprisoned him on the other hand actually makes things worse because the person who imprisoned him was the human priestess Kazue, who was his lover at the time. None of this puts him in the best of moods when he awakes and finds out that hundreds of years have passed, the kingdom he ruled is gone into the mists of time, and even most of the immortal Yokai that he knew and befriended are dead or disappeared. In fact the Yokai world seems to be in tatters with most of the leaders of the Yokai gone or dead and some dark mysterious force destroying anyone who could take their place. Kaito however isn't letting that distract him from the more important things. Like finding Kazue's reincarnation and brutally murdering them for something a past life did so he can feel better, and if he can't do that he'll settle for brutally murdering all of her descendants and burning down everything they've ever loved and cared for. Because Kaito is the kind of dragon who doesn't like leaving a vengeful rampage half done or leaving a lot of witnesses behind him. He also expects Suzume to help him on this quest for emotional catharsis in the blood of the innocent whether she likes it or not. This leads to a further complication when Suzume realizes that Kazue might be an ancestor of the Imperial Family (you know, her family?) and to top it all off Suzume might actually be Kazue's reincarnation... Which means not only could Kaito turn around and tear her heart out if he figures that out but he could also end up destroying everything of value to Suzume and her family members. Which would mean burning down the country and possibly wrecking human civilization. She is less than thrilled by this and as such is not quiet the picture of helpfulness, or sympathy, or friendliness. In fact she's outright hostile and willing to do whatever she can to sabotage Kaito's quest and frankly I can't blame her.

       Suzume and Kaito's relationship is the axle on which this story turns so let me go into it a bit as it becomes a fairly complicated and complex relationship. Kaito while incredibly angry at Kazue's seemingly senseless betrayal is still very much in love with her and can't even deny it to himself. Suzume both reminds him of her but at the same time is a very different person which leaves him in turns depressed, confused and infuriated. While he loudly announces that he's all about that blood soaked vengeance, for most of the book he seems more interested in trying to figure out just what the hell happened because from his perspective one day he was in a happy relationship where he was trying not to think about Kazue's eventual death from old age; the next day he was being attacked and sealed away by the person he loved the most; and then the day after that he wakes up and the world has changed beyond all recognition. He's angry at Kazue but he still loves her and is grieved that she's dead. If for no other reason then that means he'll never get to confront her and hear her reasons from her directly. He honestly comes off as someone unbalanced who doesn't know what he wants anymore, and that's fairly realistic. I don't think any of us in a similar situation would be doing all that well either. This however means his treatment of Suzume is very inconsistent, as he shifts from trying to win her over as anything from a girlfriend to ally to trying to treat her as a slave or pet. Suzume is in much the same situation, when her mother was banished she lost her entire world for something that was both not her fault and something she could have done absolutely nothing about. For a princess she didn't really have big goals: she wanted to marry a nice but older general who wouldn't notice when she flirted with younger men as long she didn't go to far. Which as ambitions go, is kinda sad but she's a princess in NotJapan, her options are kinda limited. Suzume is resentful that her fate keeps being decided by people without any input from her and everyone expects her to not only go along with it but to be grateful for it. Only now with her awakened power coming out, she can do something about that resentment and put her foot down. So while Kaito is fairly inconsistent in his treatment of Suzume, she's is very consistent in treating him as a threat and danger. She can't stop Kaito from dragging her along on his quest but damned if she's isn't going to fight him every step of the way and put her own interests first and I’m thankful to see that.

         Ms. Andrews bills herself as writing romantic fantasies so I had some concern as I was reading this that I was going to see a romance that didn't make sense. It frankly makes no sense to start a romantic relationship with someone who keeps talking about how he's going to murder your family or might be murdering you. I can't say I saw any romance in this book, unless we count Kaito and Kazue which we do get to see a bit of. Kaito and Suzume's relationship is intense but in this book at least it's not romantic. Suzume certainly isn't interested in one and is vastly more interested in her own safety and well being. While Kaito can't make up his scaly little mind as to what he wants. Now that said there's more going on then their little interpersonal drama. It turns out that Kaito waking up might have gotten all sorts of the wrong attention and Kaito's sealing isn't the only action of Kazue's that is going to come back and haunt Suzume. In fact there might be a whole laundry list of mistakes all waiting in line to haunt Suzume and she's going to have to sort that out because her alternative is dying. For that matter Kaito isn't untouchable by all this either, so he'll have to learn to get over himself if he wants to be able to continue his own quest. There are a number of other characters here but discussing them in any depth would mean revealing plot details that would spoil the story for you, my good readers. Ms. Andrews does do a good job of giving each of these other characters their own agendas and reasons for doing what they do and creating a dynamic driven by divided loyalties and opposing desires that the characters have to struggle to hash out.

        That said the story isn't all emotional drama. There's a fair bit of action here, with battles being fought against various predatory Yokai because, well, Suzume smells delicious to them. See while she is full to the brim with fiery spirit power, she has no idea how to actually use it and that makes her a favorite food for any supernatural being who has no problem eating a self aware being. So Ms. Andrews is able to make good use of the various monsters and boogeymen of Japanese folklore to give us creatures focused on eating Suzume. Which provides us some good old fashioned violence, which is decently written but nothing special. For that matter the plot revelations more or less come in a rush at the end and much of it is left to be resolved in the next book. While the story the book tells is mostly complete, it primarily serves as a kind of prologue to the series that it's opening and it's ending is clearly a transitional one to the next book. I also have to admit I felt the ending was a bit rushed and could have benefited from either more space or introducing the antagonist a bit earlier. Additionally a lot of space in the end is given to set up for the series itself. On the plus side the book gives us some very well rendered characters with depth and personality and handles the various interpersonal relations and behavior fairly well. Whether or not you like the book is going to depend how you feel about books clearly designed to lead you into a book series and how you feel about the characters. If you end up hating Kaito and Suzume, this book is going to be awful for you, if you like them or even just like one of them the a pretty good read. I'm giving The Priestess and the Dragon by Nicolette Andres a C+. It's better than a lot of your average stuff but there's a bit of room for improvement.

Next week, we go to actual Japan in Steve Bein's Daugther of the Sword. Keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Red Sonja Vol III: The Forgiving of Monsters By Gail Simone Art by Walter Geovani

Red Sonja Vol III: The Forgiving of Monsters
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani

So here we are with the final volume of Gail Simone's run on Red Sonja. I've gone over the character's history in my first review of Red Sonja, as well as a bit of Ms. Simone's comic book career (which I'll link again for y'all which was also the first review that our editor joined us on!). In last week's review I also talked a bit about Dynamite, the company publishing the comic in question. So I believe this time, there's nothing left but to jump right into it.

We join Red Sonja hunting for the Wizard Kalas Ra, who has taken up the unpleasant hobby of kidnapping the elderly and doing vile experiments on them until they die. Why does he do this? Because children are too quick for him and prone to biting (his words folks!). Sonja rather quickly dispatches him when he makes the twin mistakes of letting her into slicing range and gloating about his power. Which leads us to the first lesson in this lesson-packed story: murder first, gloat after. Sadly our heroine makes her own mistake when she talks back to the wizard and gives him her Name (Editors Note: Oh god, no!). Which is the second lesson: never talk to a wizard you're planning to kill. Seriously I've read enough fantasy in this review series alone that the paper used in those books could make a full grown oak tree and it never ends well, not once! Just murder him (or her) as quickly and thoroughly as possibly and don't share any personal information! The dying Kalas Ra shows why telling a psychotic dying man with magical powers beyond the ken of mortals your name is a mistake by cursing her. His curse? Red Sonja will never again be able to forgive, not even for the slightest of mistakes.

What's interesting about this is that this doesn't cause some massive change in Red Sonja's personality or behavior. She's still capable of kindness and courage but at the least transgression she explodes into a berserk rage that can only be stilled by murdering people in job lots. Even this is really just a magnification of Sonja's own tendencies, so this doesn't feel like something that is afflicting Sonja; more something that is simply pushing Red Sonja to the extreme end point of what's already there in her heart and head. In the middle of all this wanders in the last survivor of the group of mercenaries who murdered all the people of Sonja's village (he's the last survivor of that band because Sonja killed the rest of them). As you can imagine Red Sonja is pretty willing to drop everything to hunt down and brutally murder this last loose end of the greatest tragedy in her life but even this simple and straightforward desire is complicated. Kalas Ra had a brother, Katharas Ra, who is also a wizard and wants to murder everyone for daring to hurt his brother. I'll admit this kinda doesn't sit with me as well as Sonja's quest for vengeance. I have a little brother.  As is good and natural, I love the guy, but if I found out he was kidnapping people for vile, lethal experiments and someone killed him for that? I would be upset that he was dead but if you don't want to be killed, you shouldn't go around kidnapping and murdering people! There's a point where you have to admit that even your brother kinda earned his fate. I suppose it might be because Katharas Ra doesn't view the villagers as people so he doesn't care about their losses. Only his own.

In this story Sonja grapples with the power of forgiveness and how far she is willing to go to reap revenge for the wrongs done to her. It's also here that we see her at her bravest as she is willing to take extreme steps to ensure that she doesn't become a danger to innocent and defenseless folks. It takes courage to rise up against those who would oppress or harm you but it takes even more to disarm yourself so that you will not in turn oppress or harm others. Of course, even disarmed, Red Sonja is a dangerous person and Katharas Ra is finding himself staring down the barrel of something he's been trying to avoid for years: a fair fight. I have a few words on forgiveness myself here. Forgiveness is a powerful and in many ways a good thing and there is a danger in curling up to every harm and slight ever done to you like a beloved pet. That tends toward hatred and rage that warps you and leaves you unable to feel much else or to become so obsessed over what was done to you that you can't make your life about anything else. That said our modern day pop culture often confuses the idea of forgiveness with forgetting what the other guy did and letting it go without consequences. Note I say consequences, not punishment. It's entirely possible to forgive someone while deciding they're an awful person and it's healthier for you to have nothing more to do with them. Sometimes it's necessary to forgive someone for your own well being but that doesn't mean you should wipe the slate clean and forget it happened. Redemption is a completely separate thing from forgiveness and has much stricter requirements, and I think that's something else modern pop culture forgets. I'll stop here but if anyone really wants me to get into this, say so in the comments and I'll be happy to discuss it.

The next story in this graphic novel is Red Sonja defending a library and I'll admit I’m a sucker for a good defend the books story line (Editors Note: Is anyone surprised?  I’m not!  Also, the editor approves!)! The Empress Dowager was a common born woman who won the Emperor's favor. Being a very strong willed woman she was able dominate the court and when the Emperor passed she took the throne. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because it's basically a version of the story of Empress Cixi of China, one of the last monarchs of that nation. Her story is to long and complicated for this review but let me encourage you to look her up for yourselves! Anyway, this version became a woman-hating tyrant, turning against the idea of educating women or allowing other women to have high station upon taking the throne. Red Sonja in a post orgy doze is approached by four nuns and asked to defend their library which has been marked for burning. Sonja is less then excited at this idea but her own nagging sense of morality pulls her into it and along the way she manages to learn a little bit about the value of the written word. Even if that means facing down three of the worlds best assassins... Alone. I enjoyed it, but then I hope no one is expecting me to dislike stories about how important books are.

Gail Simone's run on Red Sonja leans toward morality plays a great deal. Where Red Sonja is given a task or put to an ordeal and learns a moral lesson along the way. Some of these lessons are fairly profound, such as the courage of a chef who refuses to abandon her even if that means rotting in a pit; others can be a bit cliché. There's a bit of irony in this for me as morality plays are a very Christian form of entertainment. While Sonja's love of drink and casual sex make her a very non-Christian protagonist in a lot of ways, her efforts to defend people who can't fight for themselves and the values she learns mean that in other ways she wouldn't be out of place among more Christian heroes. I don't think this is intentional but merely a demonstration of how deeply Christianity still influences our society. This version of Red Sonja is frankly my favorite so far. While crude and rather hedonistic, she's also brave and shows a certain rough compassion towards her fellow human beings. The balance of flaws, failures, virtues and successes make this Red Sonja feel like more of a person to me some of the earlier versions I've read and I hope future writers learn from this and build on what Ms. Simone has laid out for us. Some will note that the scale mail bikini is present in the series, Red Sonja never wears it out in the field where she's expecting violence but seems to reserve it for “formal” encounters with people in authority which makes it an act of rebellion in many ways. This Sonja instead wears armor that covers most of her body when doing serious violence. This graphic novel was violent and action packed while not shying away from the consequences of violence and had a good number of interesting minor characters that appear to liven up Sonja's life or at least keep her focused on the task at hand. Red Sonja Vol III: The Forgiving of Monsters by Gail Simone closes out this series with an A. I encourage everyone to read it.

Join us next week as we return to novels with The Priestess and the Dragon by Nicolette Andrews.  As always, keep reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Red Sonja II The Art of Blood and Fire By Gail Simone Art by Walter Geovani

Red Sonja II The Art of Blood and Fire
By Gail Simone
Art by Walter Geovani

“You...You Put... You Put food. In a barrel of delicious Cimmerian Beer? You Monster!”
Red Sonja​

I've discussed Red Sonja and Gail Simone in a prior review, many many moons ago (Frigid Reads, book reviews. : Red Sonja: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone). I’ve already covered the long winding road from Howard's first inception of the character to the Red Devil that graces comic books today and I've talked about Ms. Simone's long and celebrated career from unlikely origins (Two lessons from Ms. Simone: never turn around to a fan and say “You think you can do better?” because they just might be able to; and never assume someone's writing talent from their prior careers). Let me instead talk about Dynamite Entertainment for a minute. Dynamite Entertainment is an imprint for Dynamic Forces, which produces collectibles. Dynamite started by producing the Army of Darkness comic in 2005. They added Red Sonja and Xena comics two years later, with issue one of Red Sonja selling over 100,000 copies. Today they are mostly known for comics that are adaptations of existing properties (the Barsoom comics, Terminator, Robocop and of course Red Sonja, to name a few). While it's nowhere near the big two in it's reach, it’s carved out a respectable market share and will likely continue to do so. Now having covered that, let's go into the comic itself.

There's an emperor who rules from a golden city. The slaves of that city labor night and day to fulfill his commands to build a tomb greater than any that has come before, because this emperor is dying and has one final wish: he wants to throw the party to end all parties before he passes into eternity. Of course to throw a proper party, you need the proper professionals. So Red Sonja is hired to track down and bring back six people. The greatest chef in the world, the greatest courtesan, the greatest beast master, the greatest dancer, the greatest swordmaster, and the greatest star gazer. The emperor will pay these people any price they desire, after all there's only so much that will fit into even the greatest of tombs. As for what he will pay our heroine? If she succeeds, the Emperor will free a thousand slaves. More than anyone has ever freed before. If she fails? Those thousand slaves will be buried alive in the tomb with the Emperor, doomed to die horrible deaths so they may eternally serve. Red Sonja has one month to track down these people across the ends of the known world, and bring them back, in order to bring not just freedom but a chance at survival to a thousand people. The great thing about this is that the motivation flows fairly well. This version of Red Sonja spent years in a slave pit having to fight for her life every day as cheap entertainment for the crowd. It's no shock that she might have some strong feelings towards slavery. As such she'll go diving into a swamp inhabited by inbred cannibals, or fight her way through a fortress monastery if that's what it takes to get the job done. What she's not expecting is what she'll learn and what she'll accomplish along the way.

Ms. Simone shows us a very interesting and different version of Red Sonja, one I would honestly call more human and in some ways all the more heroic for it. While in the Marvel comic version Red Sonja was sworn to celibacy, except with people who defeated her in battle (which... let's admit is kinda creepy), Ms. Simone's version has no such vows holding her down. So in this version she is a woman of powerful if at times odd appetites. This provides a hell of a weakness for Red Sonja but again makes her a person. Ms. Simone is clearly unafraid to show us Red Sonja afraid, humiliated, pouting or even just outright horny. At the same time we see her act heroically and capable of treating people with respect and when she’s sure no one will notice, with kindness. To be honest this version of Red Sonja reminds me a lot of the Marines I served with, making it my favorite so far. To illustrate the oddness of her appetites, for example Sonja doesn’t care one bit about cooking. Carefully seasoned and prepared food moves her as much as barely cooked food, which is to say not at all. At the same time she clearly enjoys a large mug of booze but is incredibly not-picky about things like vintage or age. It's enough that it's wet and will get her drunk. Pairing her with a artist of a chef, whose greatest joy is cooking the perfect dish is honestly as hilarious as it sounds. Although Ms. Simone is careful not to overdo the humor. Of the six people she chases down and drags off to luxury and celebration five of them are given their own character arcs that almost take the form of small morality plays While almost none of them can fight worth a damn, they are all shown to be people of character and worth. Whether it's Gribaldi the chef’s stubborn refusal to abandon Red Sonja even as her compassion for a dying bear lands them in a dungeon, or Aneva the courtesan's desire to provide some level of protection to her fellow sex workers against abuse and exploitation. The characters work together very well and I find I enjoy the byplay. This version of Red Sonja works best when she has a companion to play off of and contrast against.

That said it wasn't all fun and games. I found myself rolling my eyes when Ms. Simone decided to do yet another version of the pop culture version of Galileo. Never you mind that he wasn't arrested for suggesting the Earth revolves around the Sun but for printing a book where he calls the Pope a moron, a Pope who was openly supporting him at the time. I will remind you my dear readers, that got Galileo a trail and very comfortable house arrest. If he’d called one of the secular monarchs of the time those kinds of names, he would have lost his head! For that matter Copernicus, who actually came up with the model was never tormented by the church either. He died at the age of 70 years old from apoplexy. There were certainly many people who were tortured and otherwise terribly abused by the Church but neither Galileo or Copernicus were one of them. To be honest I found the treatment of religion in the story rather heavy handed and it just had me rolling my eyes throughout.

That said it was an enjoyable story-line and I wasn't disappointed. I should note because someone will ask that while the metal bikini does make some appearances for the most part Sonja wears practical gear while adventuring or expecting to fight. Ranging from a leather suit for swamp work to a full chain shirt that does leave her legs exposed but is hardly the worst thing I've seen a lady character wear. The art is good and the action easy to follow and well drawn; the dialogue is snappy and fun and the characters are interesting and well rounded. Red Sonja II The Art of Blood and Fire by Gail Simone comes in for a B+. A well done graphic novel.

Next week, we remain in Howard's world for the next volume of Red Sonja. Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Clockwork Boys By T. Kingfisher

Clockwork Boys
By T. Kingfisher

Howdy Readers! We're back! I hope everyone had a nice holiday! My editor and I have rested, read and dueled all challengers upon the dry desert sand of Arizona. As demanded of us to keep this review series going yet another year but enough of the trivial details, let us review!

T. Kingfisher is actually the pen name of Ursula Vernon, who was born in may 1977 and grew up in Oregon and Arizona (it is a bit of an irony how many writers I like who also lived in this sun-blasted state [Editors Note: The Deep Desert does that to people. Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib]). She graduated from Maeclaster college in St. Paul Minnesota, where she studied anthropology and art. She’s well known author and illustrator of children’s book, the first of which she published in 2008. Before this she was a freelance artist and illustrator and was also known did webcomics. It was one of those webcomics, Digger, where I first ran into her stories. I won’t go to much into Digger because that's not our review for today (someday soon however, I promise you readers) but I will note that Digger won a fistful of awards from all corners and earned every one of them. But what we’re here to talk about today is a prose novel she wrote, Clockwork Boys, which was published just last year in 2017. In fact I got as a Christmas gift, so let's take a look.

The Clockwork Boys is a fantasy novel primarily told from the perspective of Slate, a woman in her 30s, who is a “Creative Accounts and Records Specialist for Hire”. In other words she’s a forger who gets paid to create false financial records and then break in to replace the real records with her forgeries. It's a very interesting line of work and as you might imagine Slate has a background to go with it. She’s the only daughter of a high-status courtesan and she realized early in life that she simply wasn't pretty enough to go into her mother's line of work. I'll be honest, I can't really imagine wanting to be a sex worker, but being a fourteen year old girl staring into the mirror and realizing you're not pretty enough to be one can’t be fun either. If that weren’t enough, her life at the time the book is set is pretty ugly. First the country she lives in is under attack, besieged by a nation who commands massive Things (called Clockwork Boys) that are nearly immune to the metal weapons of normal soldiers. Second, this state of war led to a forging job of hers coming to light. This is a problem because, while she did it before the war, it’s still technically treason and has a sentence of death attached to it and the war has left everyone fresh out of mercy. Third, she only found out about this after she was arrested. She has one option to avoid the hangman’s noose, which is to lead a group of no-hopers through enemy lines, into the homeland of their enemies and steal the information on how the Clockwork boys are created, which will hopefully provide a way to destroy them. The good news is that success means a full pardon! The bad news is that two other groups have already tried this and been butchered to the last man. Also, the government is slapping everyone with a magical tattoo that will eat them if they try to escape. And you thought you regretted your college tattoo. I should mention by the way that Slate is magically sensitive due to a magic-working grandmother. Whenever she’s in the presence of something significant or magically dangerous she smells or tastes peppermint, depending on the strength of the magic involved. And because she’s not allowed to have nice things, she’s mildly allergic to peppermint so this leads to her having violent sneezing attacks and her sinuses go haywire. Honestly, I'm wondering if our good author Ms. Vernon just didn't like Slate or something.

As further evidence of this I would like to take a look at the team of experts that has been assembled to aid Slate. First we have Learned Edmund, who is the youngest man in this team at a whole 19 years old. Despite his tender years, he is a genius scholar from a male only cloistered order. As such he is terrified of Slate, due to her being a woman. Edmund does a bit of growing in this story but doesn't really get that much screen time because he's avoiding our main viewpoint character. I get the sense that we might see more of him in the follow up books but right now he's very much a minor character. Our second man on the team is Brenner, a talented assassin with a snarky sense of humor and a darkly cynical out lookout on life. To be fair, one doesn't really expect a professional assassin to have a naive and optimistic view on life so it makes perfect sense. While he does add some levity to the story, Brenner is honestly the most generic and flat of the characters in the book as snarky and cynical assassins aren't really all that rare these days. What really makes Brenner stand out is that he's Slate's ex-boyfriend and he doesn't like the ex part of that phrase. I honestly have to admire the fact that while sent out on a suicide mission and operating in a war zone, Brenner is devoting a good amount of his time and effort to attempting to lure Slate back into his bed. It's an uncomplicated and surprisingly pure commitment that you just don't see a lot of these days. That said, Slate is pretty sure she doesn't want to end up back in Brenner's bed and worse for our killer for hire is the fact that he has competition.

That competition is the secondary viewpoint character in the story and 4th man in this team, Lord... I mean, Sir Caliban. Sir Caliban is a fallen paladin of the Dreaming God, which seems to be the main religion in the kingdom. An orphan raised by the church nuns, he fully embraced the ideals and duties of paladinhood. Those duties were to hunt down demon possessed creatures and if they were nonsapient creatures like a demon possessed cow, kill them. If they were sapient like a peasant for example, he was supposed to try and convince them to come back to the temple to be exorcised. He was very good at his job and was a rising star and well known hero across the kingdom for his works. Until a demon found him and then took his body for a blood soaked thrill ride. While in the throes of possession Sir Caliban murdered and dismembered a handful or so of nuns before he was discovered and overcome. The demon lurking in his soul was killed but it's metaphysical body remains in his soul and even a dead demon is not entirely inactive. While judged innocent of the murders, he was judged guilty of something for a demon to find a way into him and tossed into jail. It's in exploring what being a fallen paladin means and Sir Caliban's relationship to the others (primarily Slate) that the book really excels. Sir Caliban's inner turmoil over losing his connection to his faith and his god, along with his attempts to find his faith again are believably done without drowning the book in angst. While Sir Caliban might be in despair over the fact that he is utterly cut off from his old life, I honestly find his refusal to give up his code of behavior to be something to respect. Even if his god won't acknowledge him anymore, he will still try to live up to the expectations and goals he was raised with and believes in and there is something noble in that. Additionally Sir Caliban isn’t just a walking ball of angst, he displays flashes of humor and compassion which makes him feel like a real person. Another strong point in the book is the relationship between Slate and Sir Caliban as they deal with a possible mutual attraction they're not sure they want to act on and the fact they could all be very, very dead, very soon. It's less teenage ‘will they, won't they’ and a more tired adult ‘Do I even want to and is this even worth the trouble right now?’. Which is believable to me.

There are things I consider weak points in this novel however. The Clockwork boys of the title for the most part remain off screen, while we see evidence of their work (the slaughter of a village for example) we don't actually see them at work. We in fact only see them in one scene. This kind of reduces them to a vague menace that we are told a lot about but are only shown hints and clues about their combat power. The action in this book is fleeting and doesn't take up much space, so this is not the book to pick up if you want some high impact violence. The main conflict is internal to Slate and Sir Caliban and the personality conflicts between the party members. It's well done but takes so much space that Brenner and Edmund really aren't left with much in this book. Additionally the book kinda ends right when the plot is picking up steam (which I suppose is what happens when your book is only about 212 pages long) and I do have to cut the grade down for that. Seriously it was like eating a great steak only to realize that someone had made off with half of it when you weren’t looking. That said the book is well written, the internal conflicts are interesting and the dialogue is fun to read. As it stands though, Clockwork Boys by T Kingfisher gets a B-, I'm definitely on board for the sequel.

Join us next week Readers, as we return to the world of Robert Howard's creation with Gail Simone's Red Sonja. Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Persephone by Allison Shaw

By Allison Shaw
Art by Allison Shaw

In fact, I think you're the only one who ever took my feelings into consideration”
 Persephone page 135

This is an odd review, but it's been an odd year and the Almighty alone knows how odder still next year will be.  Allison Shaw is an American artist and writer whose work is mostly known from a pair of webcomics, Far to the North ( and Tigress Queen (  Earlier this year she launched a kickstarter to print her version of the Persephone myth in graphic novel form.  It succeeded wildly and your not-very-humble reviewer was one of the donors.  As it stands, there are no copies for sale but I am told it will be released on the Hiveworks website in the near future. As many of my readers will have likely guessed, I have a more than passing interest in mythology and knowing Ms. Shaw's work I was very interested to see what she would do with it.  Let me discuss the myth in question first, just in case I have the honor to be the first person to tell you this story.

Persephone was the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and fertility; and Zeus, king of the gods, lord of the sky and lightning, major pain in the ass, and despoiler of unsuspecting ladies (Read: Shapeshifting Rapist, Literal Golden-shower Enthusiast, Swan Aficionado etc).  Persephone was the goddess of spring and flowers.  One day while she was picking flowers, the earth split open and out came a terrifying black chariot with an invisible driver.  That was of course Hades, lord of the underworld and judge of the dead.  He grabbed Persephone! Then turned his chariot around and sped back under the dark earth which closed behind him with a crack of doom!  There in the land of the dead he wed Persephone, some say with the blessings of her father Zeus.  However Demeter was grieved that her only daughter was taken from her and refused to allow any crop to grow on Earth (Poor humans.  The gods engage in dickery and who do the other gods punish?  Humans who had nothing to do with it).  Compelled by the prayers and cries of the starving masses, Zeus relented and ordered that Persephone be returned to her mother.  However since she had eaten Pomegranate seeds while in captivity Persephone needed to spent one month in the underworld for each seed consumed.  Which surprisingly, happened to be the number of months that winter lasted!  So in the spring and summer Persephone dwells above with her mother bringing forth new growth but when harvest comes, she treks to the underworld where she spends the fall and winter with her husband.  

Well... That's the traditional myth anyways.  The thing about myths is that each generation looks at them from another angle because myths aren't dead things.  A real myth?  One with staying power? They're stories that are supposed to tell us a truth about ourselves and the world or give us a model for behavior to look up to and strive for.  Stories like that change over time as the behaviors society holds up as honorable change or as our understanding of ourselves and the world around us changes.  This isn't a modern idea either, the Greeks themselves were perfectly happy to modify their myths, as many of their plays took up scenes in the Iliad and rewrote them bringing in different character interpretations, changing the fates of minor characters and exploring the fates and feelings of background characters.  This of course means that the ancient Greeks not only invented fan fiction but took it further than most other cultures (excluding the Romans, who with the Aeneid made fan fiction one of their founding myths!).  So Ms. Shaw is joining a very old and storied company when she rewrites the myth to give us a different view of it.  

That viewpoint is that of the young goddess herself.  Persephone is a sheltered young woman in a lot of ways, which makes sense given the behavior of the gods around her.  After all, given that Zeus is in charge of the justice system here, how far would you let your daughter stray? (The chastity belt!  It does nothing!)  This is reinforced as the story opens with Persephone literally being dragged by Apollo to an archery contests with Eros, who some of you might know better as Cupid.   Persephone doesn't care for Apollo and certainly doesn't care for archery but Apollo has a cunning plan to fix this, he'll just have Eros shoot her with one of his desire inducing arrows and then when Persephone can't help herself, he'll... Well help himself (Insert Bill Cosby joke here).  Eros is indifferent to this whole plan but from what I can tell owes Apollo a favor or perhaps just has bad judgment (this is certainly supported by later events in the story).  This whole plan is thrown off the rails by two things: first Apollo decided to use a live dove as his target and Hades took offense to Apollo's rampant dickery.  So when Hades breaks up the party to give that young whelp Apollo a talking to?  He takes the arrow meant for Persephone and immediately declares that he is not going to be led around by his nethers by the magic of a mere arrow.  Persephone on the flip side takes an instant shine to Hades, not only does he scare off Apollo and force the god of light to listen to him but he also treats her with some politeness and actually listens to what she wants.  In fact Persephone decides she actually wants to be like Hades, because at least everyone respects him and isn't plotting to get into his robes.  Hades on the flip side is looking for a cure to his feelings of desire at any cost because he believes that Persephone couldn't possibly be interested in him and his attentions would only cause her trouble.  Meanwhile the two weave in and out of other mythical stories like the race of Atlanta or the fate of poor Daphne.  

This take on the two is new and interesting.  Now there have been plenty of modern setups where Persephone is all in favor of being kidnapped or has a thing for tall, dark, brooding older men who happen to be her uncle (look reader, they're ancient Greeks what do you want from me?).  This story is the first I've seen to present it from Persephone's point of view and show us why she might like Hades and his company.  This Persephone has goals, desires, and actually acts on them.  It's almost always an improvement on the story if you can take a character who’s mostly served as a passive plot device and turn them into a character who wants and does things.  Hades is also somewhat reinvented here. Where most popular media had a tendency to make him the bad guy (looking at you Disney and Clash of the Titans), here he's overworked, isolated, and grim but actually a pretty good guy.  He works where he can to bring just a little more justice into the world and tries to act as a restraining force on the other gods but is limited in what he can actually do.  He does this despite everyone fearing or hating him for the job he does.  It's to the point where when Persephone tries to make it clear that she's actually excited to see him, Hades can't believe she’s doing anything but mocking him, because no one is ever happy to see the Lord of the Underworld.  I gotta admit I felt for the guy at that point, imagine not even being able to consider someone might like seeing you.  I like this Hades, he's stern and a bit distant but at the same time he's fair and as considerate of the people around as he can be.  It's an interesting take and gives him more dignity than most.  

I enjoyed the story, although I do wish we had gotten a bit more of Persephone trying to be like Hades or even seen more of them together. I also would have liked to see more of the underworld and what Persephone did there. In the event that Ms. Shaw reads this review, forgive the suggestion but you could always do the myth of Theseus and Pirithous if you were interested in continuing the story of Hades and Persephone.   That said this book is a complete story in it's own right and makes for a nice romantic and modern retelling of an old myth.  The art is amazing as well using a background that evokes greek pottery with smooth, modern character designs.  I will note that this graphic novel is not for minors as there is a fair degree of nudity, sex and sexual overtones in the story.  Still if you like cheesecake or beefcake, then there will be something in this book for you.  I'm giving Persephone by Allison Shaw an A-.  I hope Ms. Shaw gives us more books in the future based on myth or her own orginal work.

That's it for this year folks, my editor Dr Allen (whose comments are in the red text) and I will be going on hiatus until January 20th.  Let me wish you a Happy Holiday and a Great New Year.  Until we return... Keep Reading!  

Friday, December 8, 2017

Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven
By Guy Gavriel Kay

The Son of Heaven cannot be wrong”
Shen Tai page 317

Guy Gavriel Kay, born in 1954 in Saskatchewan Canada, is a writer who is not as well known as he should be in many ways. While understated he had a great influence on the fantasy genre. For example, when Christopher Tolkien (the son of JRR Tolkien) needed help editing his father's unfinished works, he selected Mr. Kay who at the time was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba. While the Tolkiens were the writers of the work (Christopher Tolkien would put in a lot of work turning his father's unfinished work into something that could be read and understood), to declare that Mr. Kay had no influence on the work at all would be foolish. If that was all he did we could safely declare that he had influenced the genre, but he wasn't done yet. When he was finished with that task in 1975 he returned to his native Canada and completed a law degree at the University of Toronto, and was called to the bar of Ontario in 1981. He would restart his writing career by becoming the principle writer for the Canadian radio drama Scales of Justice. In 1984 his first novel The Summer Tree was released, with our current review Under Heaven being released in 2010 and he continues to this day. Mr. Kay has won acclaim in the field, being awarded the Prix Aurora Award in 1987, the White Pine award in 2007, the World Fantasy Award in 2008, the International Goliardos Award, the Sunburst award for the book we're reviewing here and in 2014 he was awarded the Order of Canada. Mr. Kay primarily likes to write in fantasy versions of historical times and places, not in the way many other writers do but by choosing specific times and events in history and focusing on those. This is something that a number of North American writers have done like Robert Howard, although what Mr. Kay does is a bit different and shows more devotion to scholarly research.

In this case Under Heaven is set in the 9th Dynasty of the Empire of Kitai, a fantastical version of the Tang dynasty empire of China, which in our world is regarded as a golden age for China in many ways. It is however, a sad truth of our world that golden ages end. Before this book began, there was a war fought between Kitai and the Empire of Tagur (Tibet sort of). The war ended in the battle of Kuala Nor, a massive battle in a mountain valley with a beautiful lake that claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. The battle was such a shock to both empires that peace was made and sealed by the marriage of the Tagur Emperor to a Kitai princess. Many years late the Kitai general who fought that battle died. In Kitai unless an active member of the government or the military, a man must withdraw from society for 2 and a half years to mourn and perform the required rituals. Our main character Shen Tai, the 2nd son of this general did more than that. He went to Kuala Nor, now a ghost haunted field of horror and story and dwelt there among the angry ghosts and regrets, finding the bones of the soldiers of both nations and burying them. This story spread across boundaries and borders until it reached the Princess sold to the foreign Emperor, who enjoined her husband to make a gift to Shen Tai. The Emperor does so, making a gift of 250 Sardian horses. Now, Kitai is rich in men, in learning, silk, rice, grain and gold; but it is poor in horses. Sardia on the other hand raises the greatest horses in the world, fast and graceful, tireless and strong. That many Sardian horses is not just enough wealth to make a man a billionaire by our standards but to gives him the ability to create a fearsome military force that can shift the balance of power across the Empire. Shen Tai, a man who had a short and somewhat odd military career and studied in the capital but never passed the examinations needed to hold civil office is now thrust into the center of the intrigues of the Kitai empire. Because there are people who will kill him to get at those horses, people who will kill him to keep anyone else from getting those horses and people who simply want to kill him but can't because of those horses. Meanwhile Shen Tai has his own concerns because he learns as he returns to civilization that his little sister Shen Li-Mei has been adopted into the imperial family, declared an official princess of the empire and given in marriage to the heir of the throne of nomadic empire to the north. To make matters worse, the man who might have masterminded it is his elder brother Shen Liu. Who is now the principal advisor to the First Minister of the Empire, Wen Zhou. To throw even more trouble onto the scales, before Shen Tai left to the margins of the world, Wen Zhou was a rival for the affections of a woman, a courtesan who used the name Spring Rain. He does have allies however; a Kanlin warrior (mystical warrior elites who work for hire) named Wei Song, hired by Spring Rain to protect him at all costs. The famed drunken poet, Sima Zian called the banished immortal and friends from beyond the bounds of the empire that he never meet but who work to protect him and his family nonetheless.

With a grudge against his brother and an unresolved feud with the man running the most powerful empire in the world Shen Tai rides into the very heart of their power in the capital. He is protected by the fact that the horses can only be delivered to him and he needs to be alive for that to happen. He is also protected by the fact that the Empire is on a knife's edge and his horses could make the difference one way or another.  Shen Tai is not the only person that First Minister Wen Zhou has decided to have a feud with. In recent decades the rulers of the Empire felt it was safer to select barbarian generals to lead their armies and guard their borders (This is never never a good idea!). One such general is Roshan, also called An Li, who now leads three armies in the North East and governs a trio of districts. He is militarily speaking the single most powerful man in the empire, feared and hated by First Minister Wen Zhou. In turn Roshan believes First Minister Wen Zhou to be a threat to himself and his sons. Before the belief was that barbarians could not gather enough support to overthrow Emperors. For decades this has held true but now the Emperor is old. The Emperor is old, distracted, and besotted with a new young consort; a young woman who was supposed to be married to one of the Emperor's many sons. But once the Emperor laid his eyes on her... well, he felt he could always find his son another wife. So a young woman named Wen Jian, young enough to be the Emperor's granddaughter, finds herself having to balance the empire, because the First Minister Wen Zhou is her cousin and An Li is a friend and favorite of hers. If she can keep them in balance and prevent them from trying to openly kill each other, she can keep the Empire together. Because she is a woman, she cannot do so openly but must constantly work behind the scenes, influencing men, whispering to the Emperor and making everything look like she's a silly young girl to keep the court from deciding to get rid of her because she's a woman who is getting above her place. She can do that however and she can keep doing it as long as needed. As long as no one upsets that balance of power. As long as no one does anything stupid out of fear of that balance being upset.

Mr. Kay presents us a world of wealth and privilege, soaked in luxury and wine. A world wrapped in ritual and outlined in poetry. Through his story we are shown a fantasy version of a golden age and we are shown how it all ends. These events, while not shoved to the side, are not the focus of the book however, instead the focus remains on a family drama and a personal feud between two men that frankly could be called tawdry if it took place under any other circumstances. The action is fairly understated in this book, while there are battles and sword fights the primary work is on the intrigue, character conflict,  internal character motivations, drives, and the forces that limit them. For example Spring Rain, who once worked as a courtesan and is now a concubine to Wen Zhou is limited because of her gender and her station but still acts as much as she can, often risking her life to achieve her goals. Wen Jian, whose station is more exalted in some ways is even more limited in what she can do than Spring Rain and for both of them the limits placed on their gender force them to constantly work through others and use indirect means in what I can only imagine to be a maddening way to work. The men in this book are also limited. Shen Tai is limited by the rituals of the court and the intricate laws that govern his society. Laws that say that he cannot even declare what was done to his sister an injustice or openly express his rage that his sister has been exiled to live in savagery by her own brother without a so much as a by your leave because to do so would be rebellion against the Emperor and the Heavens itself. It's that observed limitation that led me to chose the quote that starts this review, because frankly if someone could have challenged the Emperor on his behavior, I can't help but think much of this could have been avoided. I suppose one of the lessons we should take away from this novel and the Tang dynasty it is based on is that you should never deify someone while they're still around to enjoy their godhood. Because there's nothing more dangerous than a person who decides that everyone around them is right and they are a god on earth.

I'll be honest and admit that intrigue and heavy dramas aren't usually my cup of tea but this book held my interest as if I was caught in a steel trap. Shen Tai is protagonist that you can identify with pretty easily and he has goals you can't help but be sympathetic to: get his sister back, resolve his feuds with his brother and Wen Zhou, and don't die. You can also feel for his allies as they are often exasperated by his stubborn insistence on provoking the powerful and not admitting to the danger he is often in. What's interesting is that our antagonists, while not likable, are understandable and at times sympathetic as well. I can fully understand what drives Wen Zhou against the Barbarian general An Li, or why that general feels increasingly threatened and pushed against the wall. Some of the characters may come off as short sighted or foolish but they don't come off as cackling villains which makes the story feel more realistic even if you can clearly point at some of them and say “This person is in the wrong here.” Because of this I give Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay an A. Give it a peek and I think you'll find a book you'll enjoy.

Next week we end the year with Persephone by Allison Shaw.  Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.