Saturday, December 31, 2011

Royal Flash

Before I can begin rereading and reviewing the second of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels; Royal Flash, I need to talk about the 1975 film of the same name.

I don't think you can really discuss the book without also mentioning the film. In addition to being a journalist and novelist George MacDonald Fraser was also a screenwriter. The Three Musketeers (the 1973 version starring Michael York and Richard Chamberlain), it's sequel The Four Musketeers and James Bond's Indian odyssey Octopussy are among his credits. The Flashman's tend to have a cinematic quality about them, and there were even moves to make Flashman into a film starring John Alderton (Please Sir and The Upchat Line), overtures were made to the actor, and he even mentions this in his autobiography, but curiously enough it is the second adventure that did actually make it to the screen.

I've long held the theory that Royal Flash was written specifically to be adapted into a film. There's a few reasons for this. It's rather unusual for a Flashman in a number of ways. It's the only book to be set entirely in Europe, it's the only one that features a completely fictional country as part of it's backdrop. The map in the front of Royal Flash of the duchy of Strackenz is actually an inversion of the Isle of Man, which is where Fraser was living at the time the book was published. Occasionally in the books Fraser adapts scenes from famous novels of the time when the book is set and then claims that Harry Flashman's experiences were actually the basis for the fictional scene, however most of the storyline of Royal Flash is in fact a pastiche of Anthony Hope's 1894 swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda. I believe this decision was made by the author because filming the books had been discussed and the best way to do that was to use a plot line that had already been successfully filmed. The Prisoner of Zenda had already been adapted to the screen five times by the time Royal Flash was written (a sixth version was made in 1979 starring Peter Sellers and Lynne Frederick), being successful in both the silent and talking eras as well as in black and white and colour.

The man behind the film version of Royal Flash was director Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser wrote the screenplay. This should have worked. Lester and Fraser had also worked together on the Musketeer films. Unfortunately it didn't on this occasion. Fraser felt that Lester concentrated too much on 'bawdy buffoonery' rather than the historical facts that formed the basis of the story. No other Flashman's were filmed after Royal Flash because the author said that he would not let anyone else have control of the script and that simply doesn't happen in Hollywood. He could also never find an actor he thought could play the role properly. He modelled Flashman to an extent on the Australian born Hollywood star Erroll Flynn, and the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis struck a chord with him, but it never happened.

Royal Flash the film was actually my introduction to the character. I can remember seeing a trailer for the film when it first came out and being intrigued by the swashbuckling clips, but the rating meant that my parents wouldn't take me to see it (I was only a kid at the time), by the time I saw the film on TV one night I'd already seen Thomas Hughes version of Flashman, and the film version was far more preferable. It was after seeing the film that I sought out the books.

I can kind of see why Richard Lester chose to go the route he did with the film version. This was at the end of the Carry On film era and audiences did still like the 'nudge nudge wink wink' style of film, which is what Royal Flash did, but it did not marry well with the rest of the content and created an uneasy mix, which didn't really work as either a historical satire or a broad double entendre laden sexual farce.

One of the problems for me was the casting. They did well with Swedish model and actress Britt Ekland as the ice maiden Duchess Irma of Strackenz. The role which didn't require her to do much other than look pretty and bounce around in bed for a scene or so was perfect for the Swedish beauty. Ekland was always more famous for who she was dating or married to than any actual role she ever secured, and she remains one of the worst Bond girls ever as Mary Goodnight in The Man with the Golden Gun (also a very naff Bond film, possibly the worst one of the entire franchise). Oliver Reed, who when sober, was a pretty decent actor, was also well cast as empire builder Otto von Bismarck. Unfortunately where they fell down was with the casting of Flashman himself. That role went to Malcolm McDowell. At the time McDowell was popular, best known for his work in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor, but he was physically wrong to play Flashman. Flashman is described as being tall (6'2" or 3"), broad shouldered, with dark hair and features. McDowell may have had the height, but he's not particularly powerful looking and he's a ginger. Malcolm McDowell could never pass as an Afghani or an Indian as Flashman has successfully on a number of occasions. Then there was the way he played Harry, he came across as rather weaselly, which considering what a coward Flashman is makes sense, but a big part of why Flashman gets away with what he does is because despite the reality of the situation he actually looks like a hero and can always bluff his way out of things. It was hard to buy this from McDowell's portrayal.

In terms of success I think the film did moderately at the box office, although curiously it's never been released to DVD in the UK. The upshot of it was that George MacDonald Fraser was not happy with it, and he's the author and holds the property. They make further attempts to make the books into films or TV shows now that the author has passed away, it does depend on what the holder of his literary estate allows. I personally think that cast right and made by someone who respected the source material the books would make excellent TV shows, rather like Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.

Now, I've covered the film and the book briefly and given you my thoughts on them I'll get into the reread next time.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Starting the New Year off with a review! Fittingly that review is of a Terry Pratchett Discworld book, which from memory was actually the first book I reviewed back in early 2010. That book was Unseen Academicals, two years on and Sir Terry (he was knighted a few years back for his services to literature) has written two more books in his long running Discworld series. 2011's offering is Snuff.

Snuff is the 39th of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books and allows readers to revisit with an old friend; Commander Sam Vimes of the City Watch. The books featuring the City Watch, and it's unusual roster of guards, along with their rough and ready, tough as nails leader Samuel Vimes, are amongst the most popular with the series many fans. The last of the City Watch books was Thud back in 2005, so there was a lot of excitement among readers about Snuff.

Interestingly Snuff doesn't feature much of the City Watch, there are cameos from dwarven raised Captain Carrott, the werewolf Angua, the troll Detritus, Corporal Nobby Nobbs (no one is really sure what species Nobby is), the old fashioned corruptible sergeant Fred Colon, the interestingly named dwarf Cheery Littlebottom and the Watches Nac Mac Feegle member Wee Mad Arthur, however the character that carries the book is Sam Vimes. Sam's a great character, but he struggles to carry the book or hold the readers interest without his supporting cast. He does have his wife Lady Sybil Ramkin, his son the poo obsessed 6 year old Young Sam, and his gentleman's gentleman Willikins to help him out, and all three do provide some humour in Snuff, especially Young Sam and his interest in poo.

Sam has been forced by his wife Sybil to go on leave and pay a visit to their country estate. By marrying Sybil, Samuel Vimes gained the title of Duke of Ankh Morpork, and everything that goes with it. This includes a country estate, which he has never visited before. Sam's a city boy, born and raised in the slums of Ankh Morpork, he's also a copper through and through and finds it impossible to leave behind. So before long he's sniffed out a mystery involving the death of a young goblin girl, and a thriving trade in the wretched creatures, who are being shipped to Howondaland as labour for the tobacco, or snuff, plantations. I found it rather interesting that a country representative of England (Ankh Morpork) was sending slave labour to another area representative of Africa (Howondaland), a nice reversal of what happened in our world.

I found Vimes' investigation into events rather fomulaic and repetitive, readers have seen this before, although I liked the way his initial investigation seemed to echo the popular and long running British detective series Midsomer Murders (it may have helped that while I was reading that section of the book my wife was watching an episode of Midsomer Murders on TV). I actually preferred the earlier parts of the book which neatly described the lifestyle of the extremely wealthy and titled in 17th and early 18th century Britain. Sam discovers that his wife's estate even has a resident hermit (many country estates did, they were the 'must have' item for any well set up country estate). Sam unintentionally also rather humourously inspires what will become one of the most popular works of fiction from the era; Pride and Extreme Prejudice by Hermione Gordon, whose mother and unmarried sisters can only be modelled on the Bennet's from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Snuff is an enjoyable read for anyone who has enjoyed Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, especially if one is a fan of the City Watch or Sam Vimes, but there's something lacking in this one. It struggles to find focus early on, although I quite enjoyed Sam's discovery of the village and his experience with their sport of crockett (kind of like a combination of croquet and cricket, with totally incomprehensible rules), and his bonding with his son during the walks on the estate and search for poo of all various sorts to add to Young Sam's growing collection, but I did have the niggling thought in the back of my mind of where was the story in all of this, interesting and amusing as it may have been. While various members of the City Watch were included briefly there was an air of them just being there to satisfy fans and not really adding much to the story itself. I also think Vimes isn't a layered enough character to be able to bear the weight of a book by himself, not now that readers know him so well.

If you're a fan, you'll love it, but while it has moments, overall Snuff isn't quite what readers have come to expect from their annual dose of Sir Terry Pratchett.

Five for 2011, plus one

If you've never visited Travels Through Iest before or you don't know how I do this I'll provide a brief explanation. This is the second time I've done my best reads of a given year. Last year I wanted to do a top 5, but hadn't read 5 books that I actually felt qualified, so I did a top 4. I read more books in 2011 than in 2010 and happily I didn't read too many that I thought weren't much good, so that made identifying just 5 a hard task. I also read more books released in 2011 than I did in 2010, and in fact my top 5 were all released in 2011. The plus one refers to what I refer to as my 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels challenge. I read a book back in 2010 called 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels and decided to read them all and blog them here. I didn't do a bad job of reading them in 2010, but in an effort to get my ever growing TBR pile under control I kind of abandoned the challenge at the F's. I do plan to go back to it in 2012 and will be starting again in January. Although I didn't get that many from the list actually read I did manage to find a favourite from what I did read.

Now Travels Through Iest's top 5 books from 2011 are as follows. The only one that has any specific order to it is number 1, I guess you could call it the winner. I'll start from 5 and work my way up.

5) The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

This actually kind of happened last year, too. My top books were all settled until late in the year when I read Terry Pratchett's I Shall Wear Midnight and it leapfrogged Mira Grant's Feed to take top spot. I hadn't actually expected The Dragon's Path to make the list, and I read it pretty late in the year. What I got was the beginning to what promises to be a wonderful epic set in a secondary world that is remarkably reminiscent of a war torn Renaissance Europe. There are 13 races, not all human, and it contains bankers, plotters, warriors and remarkably layered and complex characters. Daniel Abraham plans to have the sequel out in 2012 and if the quality is maintained, it could very well find itself on this list next year.

4) The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

I've grown to expect a lot of a Joe Abercrombie release and The Heroes did not disappoint. Concerning an epic battle around a ring of ancient stones that give the book it's title, it takes place over a short period of time and contains Abercrombie's characteristically bleak and cynical outlook, but is punctuated at regular intervals by humour. None of the colourful characters in The Heroes are entirely good, but neither are they entirely bad, mostly they do what's needed to survive. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it would have made this list if only for the 'cheese trap'.

3) Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I don't read a lot of science fiction, so for one to first interest me and to then make this list it has to be something a bit different. Debut novelist Ernest Cline was probably always on a winner with Ready Player One with me. It's a love letter to the 1980's and all that decade's marvelously cheezy TV, movies and computer games. Like the fictional computer whiz James Halliday, I too am a child of the 80's, so Ready Player One's treasure hunt, like Indiana Jones meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a bit of War Games tossed in for good measure taking place in a virtual reality pulled me in completely. I had an absolute ball reading it, and I know it's something I'm going to reread more than once.

2) Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

This one was another late entry and for me another surprise. I had seen it in the book stores a few times, but a read of the back cover blurb saw me pass it up as it sounded so similar to a number of other books in the same thief as hero mould. The positive buzz around Among Thieves led me to give it a go, and I am glad I did so. Debutant Douglas Hulick has created a wonderful world for his anti-hero; Drothe, to operate in. There's magic and the 'thieves cant', there are thieves and nobles, a ruler that has three incarnations and it contains some of the best written scenes of sword play I have been privileged to read. Douglas Hulick is a name to watch, and for mine the debut author of the year.

If anyone has encountered me on a forum somewhere or they've read this blog then they're highly aware of what my number 1 book for 2011 is going to be, but for those of you who just cruised here by accident or haven't read enough of it to seen my rave reviews for the number 1 I will hold you in suspenders for a moment longer. Travels Through Iest's favourite SFF book for 2011 is...drumroll please...

1) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

I first encountered Cat Valente at the 2010 Worldcon where her book Palimpsest had been nominated for the Hugo. Cat doesn't just put words on a page and hope that they make sense, she creates worlds within worlds and weaves magic with language. She's gone on record on her blog as saying that she would like a Hugo, personally I think she should be aiming for a Nobel. What the woman can do with words is a gift, and a gift that we who have read her work should feel privileged that she has chosen to share with us. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an instant classic. It appeals to children and adults alike and it's heroine young September can take her place alongside Alice and Dorothy as a role model for all young girls to aspire to be like. Children will delight in the absurdness of a town made of fabric, while adults will enjoy reading about September's friend the well read Wyverary A-through-L. This is something you can read again and again and never become tired of it. My wife and I enjoyed the book so much that we even bought copies for our young nieces. They're a little young yet to appreciate it, but they will in a few years and their Mums will love the book in the meantime.

So that's it for 2011. Now as a little extra here's my favourite from the challenge.

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I picked up The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. I knew he had inspired Tolkien and Neil Gaiman, but it's one of the oldest works in the challenge, and you can never be sure how they'll hold up to the passage of years. While the story is simple and even rather cliched these days it's the use of language and the painting of a picture with words that draws the reader in, and the stunning ideas and truly beautiful image of fairyland that Dunsany gives to his readers that makes it a genuine classic and realise what a debt modern readers and writers owe this man and his work.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking Ahead

I've seen a number of other blogs around the place producing their 'Looking forward to 2012' lists over the last month or so. I did give some consideration to doing this here, but have ultimately decided against it.

There are a few reasons for the decision.

1) I know what I'm like, I'll get all excited about the forthcoming releases and wind up having pages of them, and even then I'll forget something.

2) I may not even get around to buying and reading some of the titles I list, and that's really rather pointless, isn't it? I can't have been looking forward to them that much in this case.

3) For reasons beyond anyone's control in some cases, some titles slated for release in 2012 simply won't get released and that makes everyone look stupid.

Having said all that there are definitely some things I'm looking forward to seeing hit the shelves in 2012, that I know I will be buying and reading. However you'll just have to wait for my verdict. I like to keep people on their toes and you never know what you'll get with Travels Through Iest, hell half the time I don't know what I'm going to post! If I get a new release rest assured that I will read it post my thoughts, I did pretty well with new releases in 2011, to the extent that my top 5 is entirely comprised of them.

I do want to get back to my 100 Must Read Fantasy Novel challenge in 2012, though. I let that kind of slip to the wayside for a fair chunk of 2011 largely in an effort to make a dent in the TBR pile. I didn't do badly, and a recent reorg of the library means that I don't actually have a physical TBR pile at the moment, although the books are all still there looking at me accusingly from the shelves.

Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling

Dies the Fire a novel of the Change by S.M. Stirling was not the first of the author's works that I had read. I initially encountered Stirling years ago with a previous book in the same setting as Dies the Fire, that was Island in the Sea of Time. For some reason I could never get into Island in the Sea of Time and put the book down without finishing it. The same author's standalones; The Lancers of Peshawar and Conquistador interested me, and I did read those, and enjoyed them. I first became genuinely interested in his Change series was when I read Ariel by Steven Boyett, and heard that both Islands in the Sea of Time and the Change series in general were partially inspired by the events in Steven Boyett's dystopian fable. What eventually did make me pick up Dies the Fire was the short story Ancient Ways in George R.R Martin and Gardner Dozois' Warriors anthology. I thought Ancient Ways was a real fun swashbuckler and it was set in the Change world, this made me want to find out more about it.

Stirling is in pretty familiar territory with Dies the Fire, the earlier trilogy Islands in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years and On the Oceans of Eternity, were all set in the setting that gave rise to the events of the Change. The main themes of Lancers of Peshawar and Conquistador shared something with Dies the Fire as well.

The premise is that some sort of event causes all technology worldwide to fail, and the world suddenly finds itself having to rediscover old methods of doing things and finding untapped reservoirs of resolve and determination within themselves to simply survive.

Most of Dies the Fire focusses on two groups in the Willamette Valley region of the United States who try to tame this brave new world. One group is led by ex-Marine and private pilot Mike Havel and comprises the Larsson family; engineer father Ken and the Tolkien obsessed teen April, amongst them. The other is folk singer and Wiccan priestess Juniper Mackenzie along with her deaf daughter Eilir and her publican friend Denny.

Both groups set up their own camps which seem to exist largely to help others come to terms with what has happened. Along the way they'll encounter others who have seized an opportunity to make the situation work for them, with little regard for who they hurt along the way.

One of Ariel's problems was that I didn't feel Boyett had totally thought things out about how a no technology world would really work five years after the lights went out, he did have working magic to help him out though, this is not the case with Stirling, if anything he's over thought how things may work and tried to cover nearly every base, he does an admiral job with few nit picks from me, although I think we could have done without some of the exposition, especially on Wiccan ceremonies, if I ever wish to conduct a Wiccan wedding ceremony I think I could make a pretty decent fist of it, having read Dies the Fire. Juniper's insistence of using old gaelic to express herself also became a bit tiresome. S.M. Stirling got some of his Wiccan information from George R.R Martin's wife; Parris, and he seemed determined to use every single skerrick of it in this book.

Although I liked Mike, he was a good, decent man in a pretty crazy world, he was very reminiscent of the lantern jawed hero from Conquistador. They even seemed to have similar pasts, and they acted much the same. Maybe a few more shades of grey were needed to flesh the character out a little.

The main bad guy was a shadowy character from Portland, who went by the name of the Protector, he was a former teacher of medieval history, who had set himself up as a brutal feudal warlord in the technology free world. There's too little screen time devoted to him. We could have had less of the Wiccan side of things and more on the book's 'big bad' for mine. I believe he will be covered in more detail in further books of the series. There are currently 8 books in what is called the Emberverse series, with at least two more planned for release in 2012 and 2013. Dies the Fire has whetted my appetite nicely and I look forward to seeing the further adventures of Mike Havel, Juniper Mackenzie and Co in The Protector's War.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Fables 16 - Super Team

I made Fables 16 - Super Team my Christmas present to myself and my wife. I could hardly contain myself until Christmas Day and after so I could get a few quiet moments to dive in to it and reacquaint myself with my friends from Fabletown and the Farm, even Haven.

When we last left the Fables they were still under threat from the evil Mr Dark and had not been able to retake Fabletown from the all powerful sorceror.

The opening issue of this collection actually doesn't cover the Fables preparing to take on Dark again from the Farm and Haven, but those still in the Woodland building, mainly the winged monkey; Bufkin. This particular bit was written by Bill Willingham, but drawn by Eric Shanower. I was familiar with Shanower's writing, as he wrote the two Oz comic collections, that I purchased at Worldcon. The only experience I really had of his artwork were the sketches he did in the books when I bought them, and he was gracious enough to sign them for me and doodle in them. His art is excellent. In this story I believe he's even better than regular artist Mark Buckingham. The story itself is about Bufkin climbing the tree in the Woodlands building to try and get home. However home for him is Oz, not Fabletown outside the building. Who knows what could happen from here on in, with Bufkin anything is possible. I also loved the inclusion of his stowaway sidekick, the Lillputian Lily Martagon.

The main part of the book is about how the Fables plan to take on Mr Dark. Flycatcher from his kingdom of Haven is managing to hold Dark back, but he weakens every day and the strain is taking it's toll. Meanwhile back at the Farm, Pinnochio has taken to getting about in a wheelchair for effect while he puts together his Fables Super Team, with the help of Super Witch...sorry Ozma. Nearly every Fable on the Farm, including one of Bo Peep's sheep; Bonny Lamb (her power is being cute), try out for the team. It becomes rather farcical until Ozma takes charge, and puts a real team together. They have the troll Grinder for muscle, Flycatcher in a magical suit of armour crafted by Weyland Smith, the badger formerly known as Stinky, now called Brock Blueheart wielding some sort of mystical blue energy formed from his faith in the cult of Boy Blue that he's begun. Ozma in her guise as Super Witch and The Green Witch (she hasn't yet been named, although Willingham has hinted that she may be Morgana Le Fay) provide magical power and Bigby Wolf has put on spandex and calls himself Werewolf Man (possibly one of the stupidest superhero names I have ever heard), Clara the dragon/crow has her fire and even Thumbelina known as Tiny Titan can come in handy, although she initially makes the team because Pinnoch...sorry Professor F, wanted a tiny person on the team as it's traditional. Interestingly enough readers never actually see the team in action against Dark, except for a story about a possible outcome told by Pinnochio. Dark does get into a major fight, but it involves Bigby's father; the North Wind, not the Fables, and that may also resolve another long running storyline in the book.

There are a few side stories running throughout Super Team, although the superhero comic parody does take up the bulk of the book. One concerns Beauty and the Beast, the loss of the Beast's power and what exactly their child; Bliss, is. Another is Mrs Spratt, who went to the dark side, and was being groomed by Dark as his wife. The former Adversary; Gepetto, hasn't gone away either and he's scheming to retake his power, as well. One possible side story that they may explore is a growing attraction between Pinnochio and Ozma, although I think this is mainly from the ex puppet than the child like witch, she did after all threaten him with dire consequences if he ever called her 'babe' again after he slipped while forming their team.

The final story in the book with pencils by Terry Moore, is about Sleeping Beauty and what has happened in the old Imperial capital since the sleeping princess put it to sleep permanently. There's a power struggle there and it may have implications for the Fables in general.

Interestingly enough despite my love of Mark Buckingham's work on Fables, I felt Eric Shanower's story was the best drawn. Buckingham in this one seemed a little sketchy and he drew Snow as less attractive than she used to be, There was a flatness that I haven't seen before. Maybe it was just because I was so impressed with Shanower's work and I've just come off Danger Girl by J. Scott Campbell which was drawn absolutely sumptously and beautifully presented.

A bit is resolved in Fables 16 - Super Team, but there's more than enough to go on with for 17, hopefully out early in 2012. I'll be lining up when it hits the shelves.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Danger Girl The Ultimate Collection

Aside from the Fables collections I don't really review comics here, but I'm going to make an exception with Danger Girl.

Before diving right in a little boring explanation is required. I first became aware of artist J. Scott Campbell when he worked on Image's Gen 13 (published under their Wildstorm banner). I personally felt that Gen 13 lost a lot when Campbell left the title to work on another project. That project was Danger Girl. I liked the idea of Danger Girl, but at the time I was collecting about eleventy million titles and didn't want to add another one to them. As it turned out Danger Girl's run wasn't really that long. It pops up now and then, but they always seem to be limited runs, and J. Scott Campbell only seems to have worked on the first 7.

I don't collect any titles as such anymore, I even wait for Fables to be collected before I buy them, but I do occasionally cruise the shelves of a local comic store to see if there's anything of interest, and that's when Danger Girl The Ultimate Collection caught my eye. I always liked Campbell's overtly sexualised depictions of attractive women in Gen 13 (no one did Catilin Fairchild the way he did, even with the oversized glasses and dorky clothes she still looked stunning). So I thought it would be worth trying his Danger Girl collection.

As soon as I opened the book and saw a caricature of legendary B movie actor Bruce Campbell, complete with an introduction I knew I was in for something special. I'm a Burn Notice fan, so love Campbell's portrayal of ex Navy SEAL Sam Axe, I also liked him in Brisco County Jr (when is that going to be released on DVD, damnit!) Bruce Campbell nails Danger Girl in his intro:

The women all seem to have upturned noses - cute, but not snobby. They also have either a mole or freckles - depending on whether they are sexy or stupendous. Bad girls, it appears get to wear fishnets and plenty of make-up. Anatomically speaking, they're genetically impossible, but it's a comic, right?

Men, if they're good guys, have straight, pointy noses and chin dimples.The bad ones get bigger, bumpier noses and chin dimples, but all of them sport physiques a WWF wrestler would envy.

In general, there is very good use of sweat and/or water - those are the wettest heroine T-shirts this side of Ft. Lauderdale!

I'd say the dental work is excellent all around.

The story and many of the characters are straight out of James Bond, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in.

Danger Girl is not one person, although most probably give heroine Abbey Chase that title. Danger Girl actually refers to the organisation of beautiful women put together by semi retired British spy Deuce. Deuce's name probably refers to the 00 title given to MI6 agents licensed to kill, like James '007' Bond, and he even looks like an older Sean Connery, with a better build, a beard and slightly more hair than the highly respected Scottish actor best known for his portrayal of the British super spy.

Danger Girl consists of beautiful, statuesque knife expert, former KGB agent Natalia Kassle, the curvaceous, leather clad, whip wielding Australian adventuress Sydney Savage, techno whiz kid Valerie Silicon, she could work anywhere in the field of techno communications, but likes the adventure of Danger Girl and secretly longs to be a field agent, she's younger and not quite as gorgeous as the operatives and is in this and her largely home base bound status not unlike M's super secretary Miss Moneypenny. They also have a couple of occasional male operatives in handsome and egotistical CIA agent Johnny Barracuda (involved in a love/hate relationship with Sydney) and the mysterious, but deadly Secret Agent Zero. The team was put together to confront and foil an emerging neo Nazi terrorist threat. Deuce deliberately targets perky American archaeologist and antiquities thief Abbey Chase as what Danger Girl need for their latest mission, locating and recovering an ancient and magical set of shield, sword and suit of armour, as her skills with guns, knowledge of history and knack of escaping from even the most impossible of situations are going to be very useful.

The villains are even more over the top than anything seen in James Bond. The blind ninja Assassin X, who has a connection and some sort of history with Zero. The villainous, but ineffective dwarf Kid Dynamo (who is really a slightly more deadly Nick Nack from Bond's The Man with the Golden Gun) and the overweight arms dealer Mr Peach. They're only a small sample and they do get crazier.

The action sequences are brilliant and leap up off the page. The opening double page panel is a drawing of a Bond opening credit and J. Scott Campbell's sumptuous pencils of beautiful nude silhouetted women put iconic Bond title creator Maurice Binder to shame.

Each issue even opens with a Bondesque pre title sequence. There's wit and humour in the art and the script. I had an absolute ball with Danger Girl The Ultimate Collection and would love the news about a possible movie to be true. My only real criticism is that J. Scott Campbell only did these 7 issues and I've seen other pencillers do it, but they just don't have Campbell's spark to their work, nor do they capture the characters as well as their creator.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

Although Daniel Abraham has also been responsible for the highly regarded Long Price series, a number of Urban Fantasy's under the pen name of MLN Hanover, and the science fiction collaboration Leviathan Wakes with Ty Franck under the name James S.A Corey, The Dragon's Path, the first of his The Dagger and the Coin epic fantasy (I believe it's currently meant to be 5 books) was my first encounter with the author. I have to say I'm impressed.

The Dragon's Path is set in a European inspired landscape where a collection of small countries are about to erupt into a messy war. The back cover blurb proclaims: Summer is the season of war in the Free Cities. The setting has been described as medieval, but I saw it as closer to the Renaissance and the characters made me think of names like Medici and Machiavelli. The book is arranged as a series of stories from single, mostly separate POV's, somewhat in the style of Abraham's friend and mentor George R.R Martin, although the scope of The Dagger and the Coin is from this opening volume, not as grand and sweeping as A Song of Ice and Fire. Each of the POV characters has a significant part to play in shaping the destiny of the Free Cities.

Marcus Wester is a hard bitten mercenary with a legendary name and a past he'd rather forget, he also wants to get out while the getting is still good.

Cithrin Bel Sarcour, a bank raised orphan, has been entrusted with the bank's funds as her mentor can see the storm arriving. Cithrin is about to enter world for which life has not prepared her.

Geder Palliako knows everything he's learned from books, he believes that life is contained between the pages of those volumes. He desperately craves acceptance and respect, he's prepared to earn it the hard way for everyone else.

Pulling all the strings is the Machiavellian Dawson Kalliam. By the book's end readers are probably none the wiser as to what Dawson's true plans are, but we know he's someone you want to watch your back around. His wife Clara shows every sign that she is every bit as devious as her husband and possibly twice as dangerous.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dragon's Path, so much so that it has become one of my top 5 for 2011. Daniel Abraham has created an interesting and multi layered world. One small quibble were the 13 races he used to people it. They're not all human, humans are generally referred to as First Blood, although there are brief descriptions of the different races, some have large ears, there's one whose eyes burn, one has tusks and another is almost insectoid, readers aren't really given a sense that anything aside from physical appearance marks them as different. They think and act the same as any human, so it makes me wonder if there was any need to really make them different at all. in this instance Abraham could have possibly taken a leaf
out of Mark Charan Newton's book and looked at the way he portrayed the rumels and the garudas in his Legends of the Red Sun series. They interacted and lived with humans, but not only did they look different, they acted accordingly. Daniel Abraham may build on this in future books.

I did love the characters though, especially Cithrin and Marcus. Marcus didn't change a lot throughout the book and his character is one I've seen before, but he had a dry sense of humour and his almost fatherly concern for the naive orphan was touching. Cithrin herself is a delight and she came a long way. She began as a shy, uncertain child thrown into a situation for which she was ill prepared, but once she was off the road and dealing with the world of high finance she blossomed and showed her true worth. Cithrin's wheelings and dealings were some of the highlights for me. Geder is another interesting character who has polarised readers. He starts off as rather pathetic and pitiable, but becomes truly reviled by book's end. I don't think he's actually bad, batshit crazy yes. Unfortunately Dawson's surface and that of his wife Clara were only scratched, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of her.

I highly recommend The Dragon's Path and the sequel; The King's Blood, due out in May of 2012, is one of my most hotly anticipated 2012 releases.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer is the first of Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal books (Necromancer was followed by Johannes Cabal the Detective and Johannes Cabal the Fear Institute has recently been published).

Johannes Cabal is a brilliant scientist who in an attempt to create true life after death, (that’s where the necromancy comes in) has sold his soul to Satan. He finds that not possessing a soul interferes with his research, so makes another deal with the Lord of Darkness. In exchange for the return of his soul he will procure another 100. He has a year to collect them, failure to deliver on his end of the bargain will mean that his soul is forever forfeit to the Devil. To help his ‘servant’ Satan gives Cabal a carnival, and the necromancer himself recruits his brother; Horst, into the endeavour. The problem is that deals with the Devil are never what they seem and even the devious Johannes is going to find this a hard task to accomplish.

There are echoes of Faust and Ray Bradbury in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, with it’s talk of deals involving souls with the Devil and evil carnivals (the authors note at the back does own to being inspired by the Bradbury classic; Something Wicked This Way Comes). I myself kept being reminded of an episode of The Muppet Show in which Alice Cooper was the guest star, and spent the entire episode trying to coerce the puppets into signing their souls over to his employer Satan.

Howard has given himself a hard task by making Johannes Cabal his ‘hero’. The necromancer is not a likeable protagonist. He’s rude, intolerant, humourless, driven and then there’s the whole raising people from the dead thing. Strangely enough I found myself on Johannes’ side a lot of the time, though. He does harvest the souls of some pretty unpleasant people. Conversely his brother Horst (Horst is a vampire, the v word is never actually mentioned, but he drinks blood, sunlight is anathema and he does say at one point that he is undead), a character normally thought of as evil, is actually rather a nice chap. It’s he who makes Johannes see that taking the soul of an innocent child (the priceless chapter 9) or a young mother driven to the edge of sanity by her continually crying baby, is not the right thing to do. Horst often seems to act as his brother’s conscience. It’s implied, although never explained, that Johannes is somehow responsible for what Horst has become.

The writing style (it’s written in 3rd person) is reminiscent of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett and even Jasper Fforde at times. The conversational, slightly random explanations did bring Adams and Pratchett (there were even footnotes) to mind. I must confess to particularly enjoying the story of the duplicitous Druin family. The oft referred to chapter 9 is partially narrated by Timothy Chambers, a young visitor to the carnival and is a comic highlight of the book.

It’s hard to categorise Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. It’s part dark fantasy, part comic fantasy, and part dark humour. The comedy does become much darker as the story unfolds and the ending is tragic in many ways. There’s a fascinating expedition into the mind of a serial killer in the inoffensive person of Mr Simpkins, which I suspect is chillingly close to reality. With most funny fantasy, you read it, laugh at it, forget it immediately after. Not Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, this one will stay with me for a long time.

One slightly odd thing was the timing of the book. It had a 1950’s or 60’s quality about it, yet certain elements seem to suggest that it was set about now, however the style of dress and the way the characters acted, not to mention their ages and the references to WW II kept me thinking that it was set in the middle of the 20th century. I also felt the that subplot of Cabal’s efforts being thwarted by one of Satan’s minions was never really satisfactorily resolved and didn’t quite belong in the book overall.

This was a really well written and hard to write book, and I look forward to finding out more about Johannes Cabal.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates is the second book in Steven Erikson's epic Malazan Books of the Fallen.

I had some idea what to expect having read Gardens of the Moon, and also being aware that the action in Deadhouse Gates was centred away from the setting of Gardens of the Moon (in fact the events in the 3rd book; Memories of Ice, apparently run concurrently with a lot of Deadhouse Gates), and would follow a different set of characters.

There are different groups of characters with their own agendas in Deadhouse Gates, and they converge a little towards the end. While the storylines are wrapped up this is far from standalone and you know there's a definite continuation.

It took Erikson, and his co creator Ian Cameron Esslemont, some time to secure a publishing deal for Gardens of the Moon, and the result is that Deadhouse Gates was written some years after the first book of the series.

Steven Erikson did grow and improve as a writer in that time, there was less influence of Glen Cook's Black Company in Deadhouse Gates, although it was still present at times. The game play aspect was not so evident either.

One thing Erikson could use is a ruthless editor. All his books are long, and they don't need to be as long as they are. A good editor could easily cut 200 - 300 pages from Deadhouse Gates and not lose anything in the process, in fact it may have even improved the narrative, at times I did find my eyes glazing over a little and wondering why I need to read what I was reading. It took over 100 pages before the main set of characters had been introduced and the stories set in motion.

Because of the cast of characters, George Martin puts a lot of characters in his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series, but he's got nothing on Steven Erikson, I found it a little difficult to connect with many of them. Too many of the cast of thousands seem similar. Three that will stay with me are Corporal List, the little soldier reminded me of Colonel Huxley's aide Corporal Zilch, from Leon Uris' WW II epic Battle Cry, and I always liked Zilch. Coltaine, the driven Wickan leader who was trying to get his vast train of refugees across hostile territory to safety. The Wickan horse warriors themselves were a great idea and something that I enjoyed reading about. Then there was Felisin. Felisin seems to rub readers up the wrong way. I started out feeling sorry for the fallen, pampered noble girl, but while she was trying to escape slavery with the discommunicated handless priest Helboric and the huge psychotic murderer Baudin, she became thoroughly unlikeable. I was actually hoping that Baudin may twist her head off, but unfortunately it stayed attached to her shoulders. Crokus the young thief from Gardens of the Moon returned, but I found him less interesting this time around, I did like his familiar, the bok'haral Moby, although in typical Malazan Books of the Fallen fashion I don't think he's what he appears to be.

The twists and turns that the story took and the sheer breadth of Erikson's creation plus his stunning ideas that are well presented did my head in, and I really want to see where he takes this and how it turns out.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Flashman - a wrap up

So now I've read through Flashman, the first book of the Flashman Papers, what are my thoughts on the book as a whole and it's place in the series?

A couple of things need to be cleared up. I should have mentioned that poor old Elphy Bey never made it out of Afghanistan. He was held as a prisoner/hostage and died in captivity before he could be handed back to the British. He was incredibly incompetent and largely responsible for the disaster that followed, but it wasn't a good way to go out. Akbar Khan became a hero amongst the Afghan people briefly for his part in the revolt. He died in 1845, and was believed to have been poisoned by his father Dost Mohammad, who feared his ambitions.

Gul Shah, Narreeman and Ilderim Khan are all fictional creations. Gul Shah was killed by Sergeant Hudson (also fictional) in Flashman and Narreeman ran off, never to be heard from again, although she does live on in Flashman's memory. Ilderim appears again in Flashman and the Great Game.

I've always found it of interest that George MacDonald Fraser chose to focus on the First Anglo-Afghan War as his subject for the first of the books. It was a little known, and not often talked about, defeat for the British forces at the beginning of one of their great ages under Queen Victoria. Given that Flashman was the right age at the right time it made sense, but the empire was big enough that he could have focussed on other more victorious campaigns. As I go through the books defeat is something that I feel Fraser likes to highlight in his narratives. Flashman seems to be the one victorious person in defeat.

The historical notes in the back of Flashman are only just the tip of the iceberg, they get longer and more numerous, and I find them a highlight of the books. They bring larger than life people like Avitabile and Cotton into sharp relief, and prompt me to find out more about them. Those two themselves could have books written just about them that would read every bit as exciting as any of Flashman's adventures.

If you can get past how bad Harry Flashman is, then you should enjoy the books. For what it's worth I think he's at his worst in the first book. He does mellow and doesn't repeat all the mistakes he made in Flashman.

It was a promising star,t and I'm very pleased that readers gave the character a chance and we got 12 rip roaring stories of Harry Flashman, the biggest bounder in history.

I'm aiming to do one book a month, I kind of made that decision after I'd started this and it spilled over 2 months. So join me in January when I'll take you through Royal Flash as Harry cuts a swathe through the bedrooms of the continent and makes a mockery of The Prisoner of Zenda.

Flashman - Chapter 13

I didn't realise until now that the first volume of the Flashman Papers actually ends on the 13th chapter. I'm not at all certain if this was coincidental or something deliberate from George MacDonald Fraser, he may have figured out that his ultimate anti hero was so lucky that he could chance ending the book on a traditionally unlucky number and still get away with it.

Flashman talks briefly about how much he enjoyed the ship journey back home, certainly returning as a hero, rather than a nobody has it's advantages.

What he thinks about most of the trip is Elspeth. He actually decides that he is in love with her and doesn't care. With that thought in mind he hurries to his father's house when he arrives back in London. No one knows he's coming, so he thinks it will be a great surprise to everyone to see the conquering hero return. Of course it is a great surprise and he and Elspeth have a wonderful love making session, although one thing Flashman doesn't understand is why Judy is still there. His father is not known for keeping his mistresses that long and Flashman's been away for over two years.

After a talk with the family Flashman the elder explains the lay of the land to his son. Buck Flashman's never been that good with money, but he'd always had enough. However while Harry was earning his laurels in India and Afghanistan, Buck gambled on the wrong railway shares and lost the entire family fortune. Morrison bailed them out. He dotes on Elspeth, always has, and wouldn't let her be shamed by what he considers a bad marriage. Elspeth supports the family and it's lifestyle via her father's very deep pockets, she likes Judy, so Judy stays. Buck doesn't like it, but he's not about to let himself be put out on the street. When it comes to money Harry's never had much pride, he doesn't care who supports him, just as long as he is supported. Elspeth is besotted by Harry, always has been, so is happy to give him whatever he asks for as long as it isn't too much, and having a hero of the empire as a husband is something she thoroughly enjoys.

As the 'hero of Kabul and Jelallabad' Harry is feted and paraded, he's cheered in public and applauded and Elspeth is there right by his side soaking it all up. One concern is that while Harry was away his very attractive wife was courted by a number of young blades. It's quite common practice and it keeps the ladies occupied, but the manner of one; Watney, bothers Flashman, and Judy is whispering poisonously in his ear. She still holds a grudge about how Harry treated her earlier and takes any opportunity to unsettle him. Elspeth claims to barely be able to tell one of the young officers from another, and mention of Watney doesn't register on her, so Harry is put at ease by this, although the thought does stay in the back of his mind.

What drives all this from his mind is a meeting with the Duke of Wellington. The Duke tells Harry that he's going to present him to Queen Victoria later that day. Flashman knows Elspeth will be tickled by that and goes home to tell her and invite her. She's out riding in the Park according to Judy, so Harry has to go meet Her Majesty without his wife.

Queen Victoria appears in a number of the Flashman's, and I do enjoy the way George MacDonald Fraser portrays her as rather amusing and not really the dour image many have of her. The first time Flashman meets her she's quite young. Flashman describes her as a 'girl', although she is actually 3 years his senior. His initial impression is in typical Flashman style: 'but she was just a child then, rather plump and pretty enough beneath the neck.'. He also mentions how tiny she is on a number of occasions, but it must be remembered that at over 6 feet tall, Flashman was a big man for the time.

The coarse streak of the Flashman's shows through even then. When learning that Harry can speak Afghani (Albert remarks that he was brown enough to be mistaken as an 'Aff-ghan'), the royal couple ask him to say something in the language. He reels off a phrase used by the harlots which translates to 'Good day, come into our street.' Queen Victoria asks him what it means, the Duke of Wellington who also served in the sub continent, and knows a smattering of the local languages rescues him by saying it's a Hindu greeting. He also receives a rare 'Queen's Medal', only a handful were struck before, to Her Majesty's displeasure Ellenborough issued his own, at the time Harry is pretty pleased, but as an old man he muses that the collection of tin that he wears serves to disguise a cowardly scoundrel as a heroic veteran.

When Harry returns home, Elspeth scolds him for making them late for tea with the Chalmers', until he gives her his news about the Queen, and then she's all ears and affection wanting to hear everything. Later as they prepare for their engagement with the Chalmers, Harry asks her about her ride with Watney (that was who she was with), and she passes it off as very boring, because all he ever does is talk about horses. Flashman then remembers it was raining and that Elspeth would have gotten very wet, yet her riding jacket is bone dry and her boots look freshly polished, no mud, not even wet. Harry wonders, and he's wondered most of his married life if Elspeth does cheat on him, given that she supports him, he doesn't much care, just so long as she doesn't embarrass him and he's never been faithful, but it is one of those mysteries of the books as to whether Elspeth is faithful to Harry or not. Harry suspects her of having been unfaithful with everyone from his friend from Rugby; Speedicut, to the Sioux chief Spotted Tail (Flashman and the Redskins), but he's never proved anything and it is a rather amusing game that is played out in the books.

The first packet of the Flashman Papers ends with Elspeth offering to give Harry twenty guineas spending money and him saying 'better make it forty.'

Flashman - Chapter 12

Flashman awakens at the beginning of Chapter 12 (you knew he couldn't be dead, he's got another 11 books worth of adventures, and he's writing his memoirs in his 80's), and realises a few things. He's got some injuries, his head is bandaged and his leg appears to be broken, he's also in a bed, an English bed, so he's been rescued and is now safe.

Once the servant fanning him realises that he's awake others are informed and he's attended by a doctor and two British officials. One is 'Fighting Bob' Sale, the soldier in command of the forces that rescued Flashman from Pipers Fort, and the other is Major Henry Havelock, a grave looking individual.

Flashman's initial concern after working out that he's whole and safe is that if Hudson survived the attack on Pipers Fort the jig will be well and truly up. So his first question is to ask after Hudson. The three men see this as concern for his fellow soldier and this only serves to enhance Flashman's heroic reputation. To Flashman's relief Hudson died. Flashman was found, injured and unconscious, with the flag clasped to him. No one knew he was preparing to surrender it to the enemy.

Luck also intervenes in that the First Anglo-Afghan war was an unmitigated disaster for Britain. They had been abjectly humiliated by what was perceived to be an inferior enemy, so were happy to seize on anything that would take the edge of that. A 'hero' like Flashman was exactly what they wanted. Flashman, as he often does, plays the hero to the hilt, he really could have gone on stage. HIs fire eater reputation will come back to bite him on the backside later, especially with George Broadfoot (Flashman and the Mountain of Light).

He's transported to India and paraded and honoured as the hero of Pipers Fort. While I wouldn't say he's embarrassed by the attention, because he's not, he loves it, it does serve to confirm his belief that most people are hypocrites. Flashman tends to see and judge everyone else by his own deplorable conduct.

The chapter ends with Flashman being told that he will be sent back to England, largely so they can do what they did with him in India, and try to salvage something out of the Afghan disaster and humiliation. Although he does admit India was kind to him he is still overjoyed to be going home, and to be doing it as a hero, well that's just the icing on the cake.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 11

The 11th chapter of Flashman is full of action and some of it could have come right out of the pages of a Boys Own Adventure annual. It also contains the first of the fever dream sequences. People don’t generally mention them, but I will, because I really like them. I haven’t seen anyone who can write these as well as George MacDonald Fraser. Dave Sim came close, but he had the advantage of being able to illustrate his, Fraser had to do it all with words.

While making their escape Hudson and Flashman happen to see the 44ths valiant last stand at Gandamack. This is what Elphy Bey had led them to. A pathetic brave few desperately fighting for survival against superior numbers. Flashman does not believe anyone survived, although one British officer; Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, did manage to reach Jalallabad. At one point Harry feels that Hudson has become so emotional about what he’s seeing that he may either give their position away or ride into the massacre itself. Flashman also mentions a rather famous painting done of the stand, which he viewed years later and shocked other people there by giving vocal vent to his feelings about the futility of the whole thing. I can see his point, and I have the feeling that while he doesn’t say it in public Flashman’s view is one George MacDonald Fraser also held.

Hudson and Flashman didn’t last long, they were soon captured by a group of Afghans working for Gul Shah. I’m not sure what happened to the lancers, they seem to have disappeared by this point. Flashman says that as jails go, and this is something he has wide experience of, having been imprisoned from back at home in England to Australia and everywhere in between (in his opinion Mexico is the worst, yet another thing that makes me wish George MacDonald Fraser had been able to get down Flashman’s adventures in the Mexican conflict that followed the American Civil War), the Afghan one wasn’t that bad, although as the time it seemed like the worst place in the world. I’m sure that the presence of his sworn enemy Gul Shah and Narreeman, now Shah’s wife, make the experience that much more terrifying. Flashman is overcome enough with fear that he breaks down and confesses everything to Hudson, although he has the presence of mind to not be completely truthful about the Bloody Lance incident.

After letting Flashman stew for some time, Gul Shah visits his prisoners, and has Hudson removed to another cell before chaining Flashman to the ceiling by his wrists. Narreeman is also present. Shah tries to put the wind up Harry (not really necessary) by promising to at some point give him to Narreeman and letting her take revenge for his violation of her. This does really worry Flashman because Afghan women are reputed to be extremely skilled torturers. Gul Shah actually threatened to blind Flashman (this appeared to be a popular punishment in that part of the world at the time), remove his fingers and toes and keep him as a slave, praying for death.

What he does do is flog the Englishmen rather viciously. Initially it’s for information, although Flashman quite truthfully professes to know nothing. I suspect that most of it Gul Shah does for personal pleasure and revenge, he does admit that he recognises Flashman as too much of a coward to hold information back if divulging it would spare him physical pain. This is curiously one of the few times that Flashman is actually tortured. He’s threatened with it often during the books, but is generally rescued or escapes before anything can be done. In hindsight bearing the scars of the beating probably enhanced his heroic reputation, and made it harder for people to see him as anything other than incredibly brave.

When Hudson is returned to the cell he is incensed by the fact that Flashman was whipped, and determines to escape. The plucky sergeant does so, first freeing himself and then Flashman. He kills Gul Shah, and takes Narreeman hostage. This is when Hudson finds out what sort of a man Harry really is, and when he realises that despite appearances Flashman is no gentleman officer. Once they’re far enough away Hudson proposes releasing Nareeman. Flashman wants to kill her, I believe ‘cut her to pieces’ were his exact words. Hudson releases her, and Flashman really isn’t in any position to stop him, although if it had come down to a fight I believe Hudson would have killed Flashman. He’s formed the opinion that he’s travelling with someone pretty low.

The two men make their way to Jalallabad, which to their dismay is under siege from a large Afghan force. Unable to get to the city, they instead decide to seek anctuary at a nearby fort, which is also under siege, but not as heavily. The one remaining British soldier (the rest of the defenders of the fort are Indian sepoys); a Sergeant Wells, is pleased to see two more British soldiers, one an officer, and welcomes them in. Flashman immediately gets under cover and tries to sleep. He’s in pain, exhausted, emotionally wrecked, and mildly feverish. It is during this period that he has this bizarre fever dream:

I was back in the cell, with Gul Shah and Narreeman, and Gul was laughing at me, and changing into Bernier with his pistol raised, and then into Elphy Bey saying, "We shall have to cut off all your essentials, Flashman, I'm afraid there is no help for it. I shall send a note to Sir William." And Narreeman's eyes grew greater and greater, until I saw them in Elspeth's face - Elspeth smiling and very beautiful, fading in her turn to become Arnold, who was threatening to flog me for not knowing my construe. "Unhappy boy, I wash my hands of you; you must leave my pit of snakes and dwarves this very day." And he reached out and took me by the shoulder; his eyes were burning like coals and his fingers bit into my shoulder so that I cried out and tried to pull them free, and found myself scrabbling at Hudson's fingers as he knelt beside my couch.

After Wells is killed, Hudson takes charge, and forces Flashman at sword point from his bed, and into at least making the appearance of being a soldier to give heart and the illusion of command to the sepoys, although both men are aware that they’re probably going to die defending this fort. Hudson also tells Flashman his opinion of the man. He suspected he wasn’t what he appeared when he babbled in the cell, his attempt to kill Narreeman clinched it, and he wasn’t surprised when Flashman tried to shirk his duty when they got to the fort, but he’s going to ensure that if Flashman can’t live like a gentleman he’s damned well going to die like one.

As it becomes apparent that the Afghan forces are going to take the fort Flashman wonders if he can trade his life for the colours (the British flag still flying above the fort), Hudson sees what Flashman is planning and both men make for the flagpole, and try to lower the flag. Hudson is killed, and Flashman is clutching the colours, when a blast from a cannon hits the fort, and he descends back into blackness again.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey

After the sad passing of SFF great Anne McCaffrey I came to the realisation that I’d never actually read any of her work (I don’t think the Pern short story that I didn’t understand in one of the Legends collections really counts). As my wife is a fan and has almost everything she’s ever written, except maybe the cookbooks, I thought I should rectify the situation. I decided to start with the first published book of her most successful series; Pern. I say first published, because my wife informs me that the chronology of the Pern books has become very complicated over the course of the 20 plus novels that Anne and her son; Todd, have written about the planet. Having now read Dragonflight I can see how this could happen.

Dragonflight didn’t begin life as a novel itself. It’s actually comprised of 2 novellas: Weyr Search (which won the Best Novella Hugo in 1968) and Dragonrider (Best Novella Nebula in 1969). Those two awards were the first time a female author had won either. When reading it I could kind of see where one novella ended and the next began, even without that knowledge. The writing style doesn’t change, but I felt that at least one of the lead characters underwent a significant shift in between the two.

There’s a brief introduction which gives readers a bit of background. Pern was settled many years, or turns as they refer to the passages of time, before by human colonists. They seem to have been forgotten about, and in turn have developed their own society and culture and lost knowledge of their origins. The planet itself is regularly under threat from threads (non sentient parasites that will leech the life from any living thing they contact if left unchecked. I liken them to the vine that I recently ripped out of my backyard), and to combat these the Pernese have captured the planets indigenous dragons and genetically altered them to enlarge them and give them telepathy. The dragons breathe fire and this kills the threads. Each dragon has a rider that they are linked to. In Dragonflight all the riders are male, so are referred to as dragonmen, but there are indications that this situation may change as Pern becomes less patriarchal.

The Weyr Search part of the book concerns itself with setting up the world, the society and culture while the dragonmen, mostly the ultra alpha male F’lar, search for a Weyrwoman to replace the recently deceased Jora, bond with the about to be hatched queen dragon and allow the fight against the threads to continue. It also introduces most of the main characters, although it is established that this story is mostly about F’lar and the soon to be Weyrwoman; Lessa. Lessa’s life will alter significantly, with her going from the displaced and downtrodden vengeance seeking heiress of the Ruatha Hold, to being telepathically linked to a queen dragon (Ramoth) and largely responsible for the fate of the entire planet.

Dragonrider focuses on the fight against the threads and the discovery of how time travel can assist the dragonriders, including Lessa now, in this battle. The largely unknown Southern Continent is also freed of threads and will be used in the future to settle more Pernese and mainly to breed dragons. The love story between F’Lar and Lessa continues and is largely satisfactorily resolved by the end of the book.

I can see why these have become so popular and some of what grabs people about the books. They’re a fantastic melding of science fiction and fantasy, largely before many authors thought to do this. Fans are still arguing over what category they actually fit in. Anne McCaffrey always insisted they were science fiction, but the medieval setting and the inclusion of dragons, albeit technologically enhanced ones, have led many people to pigeonhole them as fantasy. Ultimately though Dragonflight didn’t really do it for me.

Why is this the case? It’s mostly do with F’Lar and Lessa. I took a dislike to F’lar almost from his first appearance. He is, as I said earlier, an ultra alpha male. He just rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t see how anyone else could bear to be in the same room with him for any length of time, let alone fall in love with him. I kind of hoped he may fall off his dragon at some point, so maybe his far more likeable half brother F’nor could take over the position of Weyrleader. In Weyr Search the impulsive Lessa continually made bad decisions and took actions with little thought for the consequences for her or others, so long as she got what she wanted. This continued in Dragonrider, only now she was concerned about F’lar’s reaction, which usually consisted of shouting at her or shaking her. I just couldn’t buy them as romantic leads. Maybe if Lessa had been a little less whiny and more thoughtful and F’lar more like F’nor I would have enjoyed that part of the book more.

Then there were the dragons. I’m not a fan of dragons overall. I find them dreadfully overused. McCaffrey’s dragons were a little different, and she also wrote the book before everyone and their dog started including fire breathing reptiles in their books. What I had some issues with was the fact that the Pernese have created these creatures as the ultimate weapon, plus they’re sentient and intelligent, yet they seem to allow themselves to be used as tools and never really complain. Maybe their lives were so cushy that they had no reason to do so, as the dragonriders do pamper their mounts dreadfully, they’re rather like large house pets at times. The other thing was the way McCaffrey chose to have them communicate. Until Lessa, who could speak to ALL dragons, not just Ramoth, each dragonrider was linked only to his dragon and most of what they said was filtered through the rider. Their telepathic thoughts appeared only rarely, and this was a shame as it never allowed them to develop genuine personalities. It may change in future novels.

It’s a good start and introduction to Anne McCaffrey, but not up my alley and probably written too long ago to really appeal to me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 10

The 10th chapter of Flashman is mostly about the disastrous retreat from Kabul.

The British forces, which also included the families of the officers, along with a sizeable amount of camp followers, had their steps dogged by determined and effective Afghan fighters who took a considerable toll on the retreating army. While the Afghans certainly thinned the ranks I fancy that the cold weather killed more than the harrying enemy did. A lot of this chapter seems to be largely lifted from the accounts provided by the likes of Lady Sale and Colin Mackenzie. Both of these sources are referenced in the Notes and their works on the retreat recommended by George MacDonald Fraser. The retreat was also not helped by Elphinstone’s lack of leadership and the continual in fighting by many of the British commanders. This chapter gives a reader a bit of insight into the earlier tirade directed Elphy Bey’s way.

There are two non recorded incidents which directly concern Harry Flashman. One doesn’t have much of a bearing on the book, but it is written amusingly and it reinforces Harry’s lack of anything approaching a moral compass again. The other incident does have ramifications for the rest of the book.

Once they’re underway, with Betty Parker’s husband, off on his mission, Flashman makes his move on the army wife. He pops into her tent on the pretext of checking that she is both safe and comfortable. Flashman thinks he’s onto a sure thing here, as he’s laid the groundwork by feeling Mrs Parker up during a game of cards, and she didn’t protest. He gets a shock when he goes in for the ‘kill’ only to be hit across the face by an indignant and scandalised Betty Parker. When Flashman claims that she didn’t mind him having a grope earlier, and actually repeats the action (squeezing her breast) he is told by his intended victim that what he did is something all gentlemen do, it’s not much different to saying hello! To say Flashman is astounded would be understating it. He’s aware that some Victorian ladies had strange ideas when it comes to mixing with the opposite sex, but this one absolutely takes the cake. He apologizes for the misunderstanding but sets her straight, not all gentlemen do it, she must know some pretty odd ones if she’s been taught that it’s acceptable, and she should not allow it to continue as it gives men the wrong idea. As she never takes it further there must be something in Flashman’s words that get to her. I've never been sure if this was based on an incident that Fraser read about somewhere, or whether he just found the idea so preposterous that he decided to use it for comedic effect. Considering how many truly bizarre people and things in the Flashman's turn out to be true maybe this is too.

The second incident in Chapter 10 concerns Akbar Khan. Flashman is part of a delegation that meet with the Afghan prince to arrange cessation of the attacks on the army and the civilians with them. Akbar Khan is attended by a number of his own allies, one of whom is Gul Shah. Khan informs Flashman that Sher Afzul has died, as old men do (it’s not followed up, but highly likely that Shah killed his predecessor), and Shah is now Khan of Mogala. Flashman asks after Ilderim, and is told that Afzul’s son did not inherit because he favours the British, and that is out of fashion. I don’t believe Ilderim reappears in Flashman, but he does enter Flashman’s life again in Flashman in the Great Game.

Realising that the situation is now untenable and the only way he’ll get to India alive is to take matters into his own hands, Flashman informs Hudson and his remaining lancers that they’ve been given a special mission from the command and they have to take off now.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Flashman- Chapter 9

A couple of chapters ago I said things went pear shaped for the British Army in Afghanistan, they fell apart totally in Chapter 9.

Flashman's rather urbane captor; Akbar Khan, gives his proposal to the British forces to Flashman to deliver. The soldier himself thinks it's a rather good offer, but even if he didn't, it gives him the chance to get back to safety behind British lines, and to do that Flashman would deliver a marriage proposal from Akbar Khan to Queen Victoria if that's what the Afghan prince wanted him to do.

By appearing back in Kabul alive Flashman's reputation is enhanced further, and the Bloody Lance incident given further credence. Even a character like Colin Mackenzie, one of the few British soldiers at the time that George MacDonald Fraser through his anti hero seems to have any genuine respect for, starts to believe the legend that Flashman is beginning to weave about himself. McNaghten is going to take Khan's offer, Elphy Bey is less certain, but by this stage Elphy Bey isn't certain about anything. He's ill and largely bed ridden. Flashman even wonders if his mind hasn't begun to wonder. These days we'd say he had Alzheimers.

This chapter was readers first introduction to Lady Florentia Sale. Although Flashman often directs insults in his memoirs via this remarkable woman's way, one senses that he has a sneaking respect for her. He didn't think much of her husband's abilities as a commander, but like many at the time couldn't deny that he was a damn good fighter. Lady Sale is another intelligent person who has fallen for the Flashman stories, never realising that most of it was luck and a strong instinct of self preservation.

The meeting to arrange the deal between Akbar Khan and the British is unsurprisingly a complete and utter mess. The British have been played for fools and McNaghten, Mackenzie and Trevor are all taken prisoner. The only reason that Flashman isn't also captured is because he alone keeps his head. It's something that he's very proud of later in life. He mounts a white mare that was given as a gift and takes off. He even manages in his frantic escape to see McNaghten executed, although he gets the impression that this was done against the wishes of Akbar Khan.

Once he's safe Flashman employs a tactic he's used many times since; he insults his enemy and makes threatening noises about what he'd do if only he could get to them. He's done this often and people always fall for it, it's enhanced his reputation and made him quite the 'full of pepper' hero.

Elphy Bey finally makes the decision to retreat, even though he's advised that they could no doubt fight their way out of the situation. On the first morning of retreat poor old Elphinstone even manages to shoot himself in the backside. An incident that prompted the fiery Brigadier Shelton to remark that he was trying to blow his brains out.

Flashman determines that by hook or by crook he's getting safe back to India, and gets the reliable and useful Sergeant Hudson on board. He hand picks a hard fighting band of lancers and provisions himself and them to ensure that he at least will arrive in India without any further injury.

He receives a letter from Elspeth. A flowery missive in which she compares him to Hector, Achilles and Ajax. I love reading Elspeth's letters to Harry, they are so totally her. According to Flashman it was very much the fashion of the time for wives at home to compare their warring husbands to the heroes of Greek legends. As Flashman so eloquently puts it: It was a common custom at that time, in the more romantic females, to see their soldier husbands and sweethearts as Greek heores, instead of the whoremongering, drunken clowns most of them were..

The letter reminds him that it's been some time since he had a woman, and he sets his sights on Mrs Betty Parker, the wife of a much older cavalry officer. As soon as it's practical, Flashman has Parker sent off on a mission, not necessarily fatal, but it does get him out of the way. Definitely shades of King David, Uriah the Hittite and his desirable wife Bathsheba in this little episode.

The whole lot of them set off lock, stock and barrel to make their way across some of the most inhospitable country in the world, being harried by tribesmen armed to the teeth the entire way. Should be an interesting journey.