Review: The Boy With the Porcelain Blade

Porcelain Blade

I’m sorry folks (and Den) – no GIFs in this review. I know it’s a desperate betrayal of all you know of me, but…honestly, I’m too tired to go hunting for really good swordfighting gifs. Instead, I thought I’d try my hand at a proper review. It may all go horribly wrong. There should be no real spoilers.

Lucien de Fontein is an orfano. As the name suggests, orfano are children of unknown parentage who are fostered into noble families. Even more than this, each orfano carries a mark – a disfigurement – that sets them apart from everyone else. In Lucien’s case, he has been born without ears. In spite of their disfigurement (or, perhaps, because of it) orfano rise fast in the nobility. Quick with their wits and skilled at arms, they draw intrigue to them as naturally as other men might draw breath.

Lucien’s star, however, is not ascendant. When we meet him he is on the verge of becoming outcast, bent double under the weight of a terrible burden: the truth.

The Boy With… is not a book about the revelation of this truth, although it is nonetheless revealed, told in part through a series of chronological flashbacks that alternate with the main timeline, each one a turn of the key that winds de Fontein’s soul tighter until we meet him in the present. It is about finding the strength to confront that truth. The sweet reek of corruption lies heavy on Landfall, and Lucien is not only forced to contend with the Machiavellian schemes of the other orfano, but also with the temptation of his own heart.

The least afflicted by the curse of his birth, he is the least accepted of the orfano. While everyone happily endures the monstrous Golia, his arms sheathed in spikes an outward reflection of his natural brutality, Lucien is mercilessly bullied for daring to pass – for desiring normality. His need to be accepted – to be respected – is as much the heart of this novel as the outward conflict with the mad King and his Majordomo. Lucien is not a glorious or dashing hero: all of his weakness and fragility are laid bare on the page and it is this that sets The Boy With… apart as a singular and brilliant fantasy debut.

The author’s prose is lean – this is no doorstop of a novel – but it is richly woven for all that. The world is not ours, but the thread of Italian terminology woven through the narrative conjures up a comparison to Dumas’ Rome in The Count of Monte Cristo, the wheels of intrigue turning, torchlight warm on a damask hung over marble. It’s Rafael Sabatini by way of a tab of acid.

The Boy with The Porcelain Blade is released in Hardback and Kindle editions on the 20th of March. You can see Den Patrick and Jennifer Williams at Blackwells in London (of course)* on March 10th.

 

*Book events in the north? HA.

 

Banished, the GIF review.

Banished

Apologies in advance for anyone using a phone or slow internet, or if they get distracted by a forest of blinking, constantly moving images. I can’t stop myself. It’s an addiction.

*Cough* So, caveat established, on with the show – the show being me “reviewing” books by waffling for a bit and then covering up my total inability to deliver on or communicate the sort of insight that makes a review worth reading by flobbering a handful of GIF images all over the shop. It gives me something to do to fill the time when I should writing/hoovering/weeding/etc.

More caveats! Well, a confession, really. I got a proof of Banished at World Fantasy Con. I got it signed, and everything. It took me a couple of days to read, and then I passed it on to my girlfriend to read. It ended up forgotten on a KLM flight from Sweden, so if I fail to drop specifics to solidify a point you should know it’s because I don’t actually have the book any more. Sorry, Liz.

RuinedUniverse

A prediction of what Liz will do to me for losing her book next time I see her.

So yeah. Banished. It’s a contemporary fantasy, centred around the uneasy parallel existence of humanity and the Fae. More specifically, it focusses on the Blackharts. They are a human family that not only has deep connections to the other, but also a duty. They are the line between humanity and the darker, more predatory aspects of the fae. Well trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened, the Blackharts are nevertheless stretched thin by the demands of their role and the tensions that it creates for them in both the human and faery realms. Kit Blackhart is one of the youngest and least-trained members of the Blackhart clan, but she’s got an edge that hasn’t been seen in a generation: magic.

Bewitched

Everyone over thirty can now hear the theme tune in their head.

I was a little wary going into Chapter one, if only because I’ve been a little burned out by contemporary fantasy. I think the last thing I really got into were the Harper Connelly books by Charlaine Harris, if only because they were something different to the standard He’s a shifter! She’s a detective! Sparks FLY! narrative that seems to saturate the market. It took a while for me to find the correct GIF for my reaction to Banished.

GifOfTheGods

In short, it’s a lot of fun to read, and a pleasant surprise. One of the big problems that the genre faces is power creep. As the foes get bigger, the hero has to become more powerful in order to have any hope of facing off against them, and after a certain point it just starts to feel silly. Anyone familiar with Anita Blake, for example, will know exactly what I mean. It’s a problem that could have plagued Banished from the get-go, with the Blackharts established as figures of power and respect, but de Jager enacts a scorched-earth policy that is satisfyingly dramatic and problematic for Kit and her whole familt. I mean, she really puts a torch to it.

Explosion

Note: spoilers for book 1, 2, and doubtless 3.

So, Kit rescues a fae prince, they are hunted by the forces of darkness, and adventure ensues. You can read the blurb. You can, you clever people. It’s fast and neatly put together, and surprisingly visual considering how little space de Jager has to fill in the gaps between people running or kicking one another in the head. The world of the Blackharts – an existence on the boundary between the Real and the Other – runs through the book like a thread, catching your eye between breaths and there are treats galore for anyone with a passing knowledge of folklore. The world of Banished is big, and varied, and endlessly imaginative, but it’s never pushy about it. Here’s some cool stuff, it says with a wink. It might be useful later.

It’s no surprise that the author has extensive Pinterest boards related to the book and characters. It does surprise me, though that there aren’t many anime or manga-derived influences in there, though. Banished has the same feel to it in my head – the powers, characters, and conflicts have a flavour that reminds me of devouring episode after episode of an animated advventure show. That might seem like oblique praise, but if you’ve ever found yourself at three in the morning thinking, just one more episode, you’ll know that it’s not.

SamuraiChamploo

Samurai Champloo, btw. It’s on Netflix, iirc, and is *excellent*.

And that’s it. Banished comes out on the 27th of February, and I can heartily recommend picking it up.

Iron Man 3, or Guy Pearce Just Needs A Hug.

So, before we get cracking I’ll direct you now to Robert Berg’s review of Iron Man 3 which is a) great, b) touches on most of the points I wanted to cover (essentially making most of what I was going to write redundant), and c) isn’t technically spoiler free but is sufficiently subtle about it that you’d have to be wound up really tight to feel as if it spoils the movie for you.

I, dear reader, suck at dancing around spoilers so I’ll just put the tl;dr version here. Go see Iron Man 3. It is mostly excellent. Enjoyable and in some respects (but not others) sufficiently challenging to rise above the base level of popcorn-munching explosion porn that is the de facto standard (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*). A lot of effort has gone into it, and there are a lot of lovely little moments for the keen-eyed that you can list to your other half on the way to the car.

I repeat: spoiler alert.

So. Iron Man 3. It gets a lot of things right, and first among them is Tony Stark. What could easily have been a one-note character (he is snarky and rich, lol!) is written and performed with depth and nuance. Underneath the layers of acerbic, exasperated curtness, Tony is all heart, and it is a credit to the film and RDJ that this is shown not as an epiphany, but as something that shows through the cracks all the way through.

And those cracks aren’t just in his armour. There’s a reason Tony leaves himself out of the roll call when he faces Loki in the Avengers, and it’s not simple cinematic bravado. He feels small – he feels weak – and at the beginning of Iron Man 3 he’s not trying to come to terms with this: he’s trying to beat it. The armour is up to Mark 42 (and there are some great cameos by other variants during the film) but even more than that he is training. Stark has never been out of shape but he’s visibly broader, more muscular, and we see him both working out, but also feinting attacks at a Wing Chun dummy. Tony’s first response to his imagined inadequacy is to defeat it, and the effort is destroying him.

Needless to say, things get worse before they get better, but throughout it Tony doesn’t really change – it’s more that he remembers there is value in the qualities he has. Eternally crushed by the shadow of his own doubt, Iron Man 3 is about how he learns to come out from under all that weight.

Where the movie falters, though, is in the challenge he faces.

There’s a bit in Night at the Museum 2 where Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) meets Darth Vader:

This is how I feel about the antagonists in Iron Man 3. They’re just too busy, and by the end of the movie you’re left wondering what the hell they actually ever wanted. There are four or five really great villain concepts in there, but rather than just pick one and really going for it, they have them ALL and it starts to feel like a bit of a mess. The Extremis treatment starts off quite scary – the idea of a literally unkillable soldier (but they are really, really hard to make and keep stable – although there are other applications for the failures) is terrifying, but then it gets ruined by that not being enough.

Unkillable with impossible strength and agility? Okay. Right. Even more than simply being unstoppable, the Extremis soldier is one-on-one capable of immediately overcoming any normal human foe and can fight an Iron Man suit. That’s fine.

Wait, no. There’s more. They can create human torch levels of heat. And spit fire.

Oh, and there’s a fucking army of them.

I can appreciate the desire for a big multi-player set piece, but I switched off for five minutes while the battle played out. The Extremis soldiers had stopped being scary and were just background pyrotechnics. Instead of being thrilled I sat there feeling the same kind of awkwardness I felt while watching the last episode of Sherlock – how could the conspiracy operate with so many people involved? Moriarity manipulates/bribes/threatens a LOT of people and the idea that in an age of widespread instant communication not one would give the game away beggars belief. Likewise with the AIM thinktank – how are they able to maintain such an absolute blanket of secrecy?

Given that there are several shots in the film of henchmen doubting their purpose – including one of the chief henchdude looking very uncomfortable when the time comes to attack Air Force One – I can’t help but suspect this was something that they toyed with during shooting, but it never made it out the door. In fact, there are several scenes and ideas that are left to dangle endlessly unfulfilled – most wisely, perhaps, the scene where Tony Stark buys fertiliser from a hardware store and makes a set of kitchen table bombs, clear glass jars filled with Hollywood’s favourite visual device, the binary explosive.

Anyway. Scrappy editing and baddies that become dramatically less threatening by the endgame aside, Iron Man 3 is a good movie, and worth going to see.

Serial Killers Incorporated

I never really assign scores to things when I review them. There are a lot of opinions out there, and as far as I can tell there are quite a few that disagree strongly with me, no matter the subject.

So when I say you might not like Andy Remic’s Serial Killers Incorporated, understand that I’m covering all the bases.

Personally, I like it. One of the first books to be released by the author’s own ebook publishing venture, Anarchy Books, SKI is an ice-cold shot of 175-proof hyperbole, that Remic slams down on the bar with a glower. Drink up or get the fuck out is the message.

I think if you sat down and tried to take it seriously, tried to analyse the text, then you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment. From the first few pages, SKI pretty much sets up its stall: Bad men are about their business of doing bad things – Remic doesn’t really play with the form too much once he’s got it duct-taped to a chair. All he does is douse it in bombast and toss lit matches at it until the whole thing goes BOOM.

There are touches of linguistic genius scattered all the way through, simple phrases that sit really nicely in your mind, but for the most part it’s about big, fast images that keep the pages turning. Phrases like “the bike leapt forward, scorpion-stung, and smashed at a million miles an hour towards the line of gangsters who opened fire dark-eye barrels ejaculating blossoms of flame” just erupt out on the page full of energy and pace, and at times I could imagine the actual writing process as being just as energetic – Remic roaring with rage at the limitations of typing, sweeping the keyboard aside and just smashing the words directly into a giant slab of clay* with his fists.

it puts me in mind of Ben Elton’s book Popcorn (which I have previously referenced as the quickest book I have ever read, ever). Naughty people do terrible stuff, and the reader is stuck with an ethically broken but morally stable narrator, delusional and self-aggrandising as fuck, whose POV guides the tale along.

If that’s the sort of poison you think you can handle, then go grab a copy. It’s a fun ride.

 

 

 

*On a side note, the Sumerians have an awesome IP claim against the iPad if they filed their patent for tablet technology.

True Grit

Lisa isn’t a massive fan of Westerns.  I know this chiefly because I’ve made her sit through more than a couple in the past, trying to get her to at least appreciate them on the grounds of thematic and cinematographic merit, and every time it has resulted in her boredom alarm (in the form of a world – or, at least, boyfriend – weary sigh) going off every ten minutes.

Since I had used up all my good viewing graces (banked sitting through the slew of rom-coms that found their way onto our Lovefilm listings) on The Assassination of Jesse James and Appaloosa, I decided it was best not to push my luck and went to see True Grit by myself.

Continue reading “True Grit”

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bagicalupi is a 2009 novel of dystopian future, a world where an advanced level of genetic crop manipulation has produced two almost-cataclysmic results – the development of advanced and destructive disease strains (it’s left to the reader to decide whether these strains have formed through evolution, or have been synthesised) and a global monopoly on the gene patents of disease-resistant fruit and crops.

The story itself takes place in Thailand, one of the few strongholds of meaningful resistance against the monopolisation of the “calorie” companies – the only reason they have held out successfully is through the aid of defected geneticist and the possession of a massive seed bank, thousands of genetic samples of pre-manipulation and disease-free plant material that can be used as genetic stock for the generation of “fresh” produce lines.

That’s not to say Thailand is without problems, though.  Corrupt to the core, two government factions struggle for power over the other, primarily concerned with the largely insular Kingdom’s strict trade and customs systems, while various underworld and street factions take their share and hold de facto sway over the industrial sector and the streets themselves.

Stuck in the middle of it is a cast of disparate characters: Anderson Lake, operative of a calorie company on the hunt for the elusive seed bank location; Hock Seng, survivor of an Islamist purge of Malaysia and foreman in Lake’s cover operation, an experimental spring factory; Jaidee, Tiger of Bangkok, incorruptible Captain of the White Shirts – the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry; Kanya, Jaidee’s second-in-command; and Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a genetically-modified, vat-grown, built for pleasure but ingrained with specific, controlling flaws – the irresistible urge to obey, the staccato motion of her muscles – dumped as an economic sacrifice by her owners and found at the start of our story being debased on-stage in a Thai sex show.

I should start with what’s good about the novel.  I enjoyed it, for a start, and read through the entire thing in almost a single sitting during a day’s relaxation after the start of my Christmas holiday.  It’s not a difficult read for anyone willing to familiarise themselves rapidly with the jargon of a world based on biotech and genetic tinkering – in fact, I found the Thai words slipped into things more jarring than the tech-speak – and the characters are readily sympathetic if not exactly angelic in their respective agendas.

The writing, too, is excellent.  Stirring, evocative imagery: just the right amount of research in there to give the world shape, colour, tone, and not so much that you feel like you’re getting a lecture.  The author skips lightly over action sequences and fights, and rightly so – the few times that more detail is required, things take a treacle-slow turn for the worse and you find your eyes skipping description just to find out what’s actually going on.

For all that, though, the plot builds nicely, both in the macroscopic scene-by-scene flow of things and the overarcing build of pressure as the government factions kick off a battle of escalating wills.  If anything it peaks a little too early on, and the final lifts feel shallow compared to the city’s implosion at the two-thirds mark.

On the downside, it’s hard not to make obvious comparisons to superior work.  I am, if anything, a child of my influences, and it would be disingenuous of an author to present such a postmodern work without expecting readers to sit and pick parts apart.

The biggest problem I had with the entire thing was the Windup Girl herself.  She’s a mish-mash of imagery, a sex doll inconceivably gifted with the ability to move at superhuman speeds, to break all genetic and social codes programmed into her and self-emancipate.  Granted, she’s pushed hard on that journey, but it still feels convenient, a little too inspired towards producing an image instead of something that fits into the plot.  One second she’s an alien machine-person, loathed, reviled, desired, punished for her existence, next thing she’s punching people in the throat and moving with a fluidity and grace that Pris couldn’t quite manage even with a male stunt double.  Near the end she pulls the joint of an elbow apart catching herself on a balcony and in that long, drawn-out moment dangling above the dark alley you can’t help but recall Major Kusanagi’s cyborg body just plain giving up the battle between her irresistible will and the immovable lid of a spider tank.

Taking the wider view, the entire book is good, but more than anything else it makes me want to read The Quiet American again.  Greene’s prose is more clipped, less vibrant, but nevertheless the simmer of his plot is more subtle, more controlled.  Very little happens that the reader doesn’t experience first-hand in Windup Girl, and given the controlled, corrupt nature of the various factions at work it might have been more fun to have more reaction, more subtlety to events.  I realise that’s not a fashionable publishing view – the here and now is very much in vogue – but it’s the immediate difference that sets The Quiet American apart as a classic and denies the Windup Girl similar status.

I have geek oozing out of every pore.

Tonight we sat down and watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.*

Lisa was firmly of the opinion that the movie, weighing in at two hours and forty minutes (approximately the same amount of time it takes to write the title out longhand), was a good hour too long for the actual amount of story there was.

Normally I’d agree, in that any movie that drags out a fairly thin slice of narrative past the two hour mark will start to make me itchy all over and I’ll have to take a break from it (someday I’m going to write a huge blog post on why the cinema is shit and you’re all going to hate me forever).  However, in this particular case I was captivated by it.

The movie is composed almost completely of silence and stillness.  The palette is muted, the cinematography flattened and obscured.  We see characters in the distance, at rest, hidden or distorted through lenses and the thick, puddling glass of roughly-cut windowpanes, we see them in mirrors, or through their own viewpoints.  There’s not a great deal of gunplay, or action, and when the violence comes it, too, is heavily cut-down – a thick-palmed slap of furious motion, then the long, drawn-out consequences that follow.

And even though there’s not a great deal of dialogue, not much being said out loud, the film is absolutely drenched in drama.  The acting, from Casey Affleck especially, is superb.  The camera lingers on each character’s face for far longer than any normal filmmaker would dare, and for a time you can barely bring yourself as a viewer to meet Ford’s eyes: his frustration, that simmering, impotent rage that turns over in his belly is right there in those heavy-lidded glances, and the bitter, oily twist of his grin.

Pitt, too, is very good in his role, although he gets less room to show his skills. James, iconic and enigmatic, remains largely so throughout the movie, and it’s only through the aid of narration and a couple of tiny moments that we actually begin to see a little more of the character coming to life.  It’s a shame we don’t get more of him, given the running time, but he is a legend in American history, and legends are perhaps best left painted only as an outline.

We know the ending from the beginning, of course, and it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Pitt as a good man – even though the narrative paints him quite readily as a thief and a murderer – and Affleck as the twitching, baleful Ephialtes figure who betrays his leader.  By the climax, though, things are not so clear-cut, and we’re left swimming in a muddy world where no one figure stands out as right or wrong, and the motivations of the characters are less satisfying from a Hollywood perspective, but so much more from the perspective of humanity.  The players are capricious, and this gives the story much-needed tension.  As we build to the climactic assassination, there’s a palpable feeling of nervousness, of what if, because although we know how the story ends it feels like at any moment the situation could turn and history could be rewritten in just a single second of celluloid flicker.

That alone makes the movie worth watching.  Add to that a well-chosen supporting cast – a few big names in there but none that lumber onto the screen and jar your suspension of disbelief too strongly – and a brilliantly-paced epilogue, this is a great movie to spend an evening with if you’re up for something a little more heavyweight than the norm.

In other news, I got a Kuru Toga mechanical pencil! It has a tiny clutch just behind the nib that rotates the lead to keep the wear uniform across it, reducing breakages and improving the feel when writing.  So far, thumbs up!

*Obvious porn title – The Ass-Assassination of…you get the picture.

Up in the Air.

Last night Lisa and I went to see “Up in the Air”, starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman (who also did Juno).

The basic premise is focussed on Ryan Bingham (Clooney) – he’s a corporate downsizer; the person that management in large companies bring in to fire people.  It’s a very American concept, where contractually people can be working one day and fired the next – there’s no notice period or negotiation.

He travels constantly, and he’s the type of guy that likes it that way; he has nothing at home (the fridge full of condiments a nod to Fight Club) and the only thing that satisfies him is the elite status that frequent flight brings.  Again with the Americana.  Neither the writer or the director are attempting for an everyman feeling in the movie.  It’s most definitely aimed at America.  Here is corporate America, it’s saying.  Our industries are dispersed, depersonalised.  As a result, some of the people working as part of that are, too. If I was being overly analytical, I’d pour it on about the general message of the movie being an indictment of corporate structure versus the inherent goodness of the basic family unit, but I’ll leave off for now.  Certainly in ten years time, Up in the Air isn’t going to be taking pride of place in many film studies curricula.

As you’d expect, it’s not the set-up for an action movie. It’s a think piece, the idea being that despite his job and his character, Ryan is essentially a good person and the interruption of his routine – internal changes in his company, a relationship with a fellow career traveller, and a family wedding – all cause him to act contrary to his anti-social personality.

In short, the arc of the story is entirely predictable. Dramatic things throw the main character off balance, and his recovery constitutes an epiphany which is the filmmaker essentially making a statement about what people are and how even though the lead has driven himself to a point so alien from that statement that he makes motivation speeches about avoiding commitment, he is invariably drawn back into the fold by the better angels of his nature.

As with all films of this type it depends on the lead to carry the story. There are no surprises in this film, and the drama is so light that it’s left to Clooney to give the whole thing depth.

Thankfully, he does. Your milage may vary with him, but watching the little tics and frowns interrupting his outwardly cool facade is fascinating viewing. He doesn’t have a massive range as an actor, but inside those boundaries he’s very, very good at what he does.

Worth watching at the cinema? Probably not considering cinema prices, although you’re guaranteed a good seat with Book of Eli, All about Steve and Daybreakers all opening the same weekend.  They aren’t “big hitters”, really, but all of them are probably more suited to the cinema experience than Up in the Air.

Definitely one for the LoveFilm/NetFlix list though, if you fancy a fairly light movie that checks in at a little under 2 hours, although if you’re in the market for a must-see Clooney movie then Out of Sight and Michael Clayton take precedence (in that order).