Ghibli Retrospective: “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”

Isao Takahata is Studio Ghibli’s second critically acclaimed director. He is neither as good nor as prolific as Miyazaki, but he is, for lack of a better word, “artsier”. Takahata’s best known film is “The Grave of the Fireflies” (which I will NOT be getting to), the notoriously sad and depressing wartime classic about two children who starve to death in WWII era Japan. “Grave of the Fireflies” is universally acclaimed, undeniably brilliant, profound, moving, and something nobody ever, ever desires to watch twice. Takahata is not a crowd pleaser like Miyazaki is.

…Which isn’t to say that he’s bad. Quite the contrary, Takahata is very good, and certainly interesting. He has two of the most artistically unique Studio Ghibli films, “My Neighbors the Yamadas” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”.

The first and most obvious thing to note is that yes, the pencil-drawn “Kaguya” is a beautiful film. The story of the film is taken from the Japanese folktale (or, technically more accurately, Monogatari) “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. The plot is that a bamboo cutter discovers an infant the size of his thumb inside of a magical stalk of bamboo, an infant he immediately recognizes is a Princess with no name. Together with his wife, they raise the infant as she grows with supernatural speed into a young woman of exquisite beauty. At the same time, the Bamboo cutter finds gold and fine clothing appearing inside other stalks of bamboo, and takes it as a sign from Heaven that he is to move to the capital and raise the Princess as actual royalty, where she learns the duties of a real Princess and leaves her friends back in the bamboo valley behind.

The movie is – bluntly – rather dull, but it is an interesting look at Japanese culture and history. However, this is also its biggest failure. Miyzaki is often cited as a feminist, but he is not in the way westerners think of the term, at least as far as his movie go. If this movie is anything to go by, Takahata is. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is profoundly and obnoxiously anti-men, and the truly harmful thing about this is that to reach that point the movie needs to lie about its past and its origins.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” tries to paint a picture of an old Japan where young Princesses were swept up against their will by the whims of the patriarchy, unable to make their own choices or escape the expectations of a male-oriented society. The Princess is clearly far happier at her original home by the bamboo forest, playing with other children and living among the beauty of nature, than she is living at the cold, sterile palace. But her father essentially forces her to live at the palace he builds for, claiming the entire time that royal life and marriage are for her happiness but obviously thinking more about his own newfound status.

The royalty who come to visit the Princess and ask for her hand in marriage clearly know absolutely nothing about her and don’t care, comparing her to various objects and completely uninterested in getting to know her personally. The Emperor almost kidnaps her. The one male character originally portrayed as positive in the film considers leaving his wife and children to run off with her. Literally none of the male characters are portrayed positively. The father has a change of heart at the end of the film, but he has been such a negative influence up until then that it very much comes across as too little, too late.

The big issue here is that this isn’t how the original 10th century story went; put another way, this movie is portraying a lie. This is not what all men were like. Her father did not shop the Princess out to various men like a slave in the market, but rather tried to protect her from the outside world; he was not happy about making her choose among the royalty who come to court her, but is pressured into it.

When the Emperor comes to court the Princess, he does not attempt to kidnap her, and when she rejects him, he does not vow to return and make her marry him whatever her issues on the matter. In fact, the Emperor treats the Princess with great respect the entire time. He continually proposes to her, having fallen in love, but accepts her rebuffs with grace. When the moon people come for her at the end of the story, the Emperor tries to stop them despite the fact that she rejected him. In the original tale, the roles of the men and women are, if anything, reversed; the Princess has the royalty wrapped around her little finger while her father is forcibly bullied by them despite his best efforts to help her.

At the end of the story, the Princess and the Emperor have such a close relationship that the Princess writes a letter to the Emperor herself before she is taken back to the moon, and the Emperor is so overcome with grief he sends men to the top of Mount Fuji – the mountain “closest to heaven” – and tells them to burn the letter in the hope that it will one day reach the Princess.

And ultimately this is the biggest issue with the film: It tries to paint an image of a time gone by when women were treated as objects and men were selfish boors and jerks, when the original story simply doesn’t portray a world like that. The point of the film is a lie, and if the movie is most interesting as a piece of Japanese culture, it is highly disappointing to see it wear its anti-men agenda so proudly on its sleeve like that.

If you like the idea of watching an experiment in pencil drawn animation and semi-dreamlike storytelling, then you might find the movie of interest; I can’ really say I regret watching it. But for most people, it’s not recommended.

 

 

Book Review: For Steam and Country by Jon del Arroz

A couple of weeks ago, I took my 12-year-old daughter to the town library in search of something to read. When I asked the librarian in charge of the YA section to recommend something without suicide or sex, she said, without hostility but quite firmly that we were in the wrong section. Apparently those were the predominant themes of modern YA literature. (Mind you, this is the stuff offered to them as pleasure reading, in addition to the doom-and-gloom highbrow literature they’re already required to read for school.) And then we wonder why so many of today’s teens are A. depressed and B. avoid pleasure reading at all costs.

It is therefore with great pleasure that I report on this latest offering from a science fiction author Jon del Arroz. For Steam and Country is, as the title implies, a steampunk adventure first and foremost, but it also succeeds brilliantly as YA.

The protagonist, Zaira von Monocle, is a 16-year-old, who–shocker!–actually behaves as a normal teen, even though the circumstances of her life are anything but ordinary. Sure, she is a daughter of a great adventurer, who inherits her father’s airship and goes off to far away lands and gets involved in battles that might decide the fate of her country. Yet at the same time she is subject to the same challenges and emotions as any teen. She has a secret crush on a neighbor boy who, frustratingly, only sees her as a friend. She feels sad about having lost her mother at a young age and devastated at the news that her father is presumed dead. She has a comically adorable attachment to her pet ferret (yes, there’s a ferret named Toby, and he’s important to the plot!). And, as most teenagers, she has her flaws: she is stubborn, occasionally rash, doesn’t know her limitations while at the same time being insecure… Did I mention the “normal teen” thing? If you don’t have teens of your own, just take my word for it. Zaira is true to life, perhaps more so than the cynical and too-smart-for-their-age creatures that populate modern YA fiction, especially the kind geared towards girls.

 

Read the full review at Marina’s Musings

A review of For Steam and Country, by Jon Del Arroz

Having a book published BY the blog’s owner isn’t exactly kosher in some circles, but, I’m not actually collecting a paycheck, so I can write whatever the heck I want about a book.

For Steam and Country: Book One of the Adventures of Baron Von Monocle

Yeah. This one is going to be a little strange. But it’s steam punk. Aren’t they all?

Her father’s been pronounced dead. Destructive earthquakes ravage the countryside. An invading army looms over the horizon. And Zaira’s day is just getting started…

 

Abandoned at an early age, Zaira von Monocle found life as the daughter of a great adventurer to be filled with hard work and difficulty. She quickly learned to rely on only herself. But when a messenger brought news that her father was dead and that she was the heir to his airship, her world turned upside down.

 

Zaira soon finds herself trapped in the midst of a war between her home country of Rislandia and the cruel Wyranth Empire, whose soldiers are acting peculiarly—almost inhuman. With the enemy army advancing, her newfound ship’s crew may be the only ones who can save the kingdom.

 

For Steam and Country is the first book in the Adventures of Baron Von Monocle series by top-10 Amazon best selling space opera author, Jon Del Arroz.

So, a farm girl is taken from her home in order to fight an evil empire that leveled her village, leaving nothing for her to go back to ….

And our heroine’s father leaves a memoir behind that states he prefers to sword, as it is “a more elegant weapon” …. for a more civilized age, I’m sure.

Nah, that doesn’t sound familiar at all, does it? Heh.

Granted, our heroine gets a much cooler inheritance from her MIA dad than a mere laser sword.. No. She gets an airship, a crew, and a SpecOps commando team. Cool, huh?

There are fun bits of business all over this book. There is a red shirt engineer who is very cautious about his estimates (no, he doesn’t come with a Scottish accent). There are airships and a knight named Cid, and a military philosophy named Jasyn Warhpeg … so Jon occasionally got cute at times. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t lean too heavy on the Steampunk, or the in jokes. Yes, there are airships and cars, but For Steam and Country doesn’t go as over the top as some steampunk, like Girl Genius. And for all the jokes I’ve made, any similarities to Star Wars end about 30% into the book. But it’s enough to warrant discussions about hero journeys, that sort of thing.

At the end of the day, For Steam and Country is a very traditional story, and quite comfortable in some of what it delivers. Which is a good thing. While I hate to disagree with the man who signs my royalty checks, there is something about royalty reclaiming inheritances that speaks to us — just ask Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a trope to start with.

It’s fun. For Steam and Country has a lot of good solid characters, with back stories and a full history. And the last third of the book really does take off into strange new worlds, so if you think the story is paint by numbers … don’t bet on it. Seriously, don’t.

Right now, the only weaknesses to the book are the ones that comes with the start of any series — if For Steam and Country didn’t cover it, it’ll probably show up in book 2. There are some characters that need more background and some sense of what they’re thinking. For example, the Iron Emperor, an adversary whom we briefly meet in the story, is interesting, in part because he has very little screen time, and we don’t get a great sense of what’s going on in his head — especially when you get to revelations about what’s Really Going On Here.  I suspect that the sequel to For Steam and Country will have a lot of fallout from book one, and I will be very interested to see how that works.

Let’s call this a strong 4/5 stars. It’s well above average, with likable protagonists, a fun romp, with enough variations on traditional story telling tropes so that you can’t see what’s going to happen next. And no, you won’t see it coming. Go buy it, you won’t regret it.

The Dragon Awards are open and ready for nominations, and we have a list of suggestions you might want to take a look at. If you already  have a good idea of what you want, just click here to go and vote for them. The instructions are right there.

The Love at First Bite series. 
    

Superversive Book Review: The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel

In my review of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, I noted how it had a magical girl, who ended up at a magical school, collected nearly a dozen magical friends, joined a fraternity, investigated a mystery, saw an omen that heralds the doom of worlds, headed off an attack by an army of dozens of mind-controlled students, saved the entire campus, and provided support for a battle that involved the dragon that used to be Professor Moriarty.Not bad for the first week, huh?

No. Sorry, my mistake. It’s not bad for the first five days of school. Take that, Harry Potter.

How do I know that book one was the first week? Because , book two of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Rachel series, opens only a few hours after the end of book 1, and explicitly states she’s only been there five days.

If the books get any more dense, we’re going to have to call Rachel Griffin “Jack Bauer.”

In spy novels, most people will cite John Le Carre, usually for good reason. As far as I’m concerned, his crowning achievement were his George Smiley novels. The middle book of his Carla trilogy was called The Honorable Schoolboybook 1, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, ended with the discovery of a mole in MI6, and his unmasking. Much of the second book is walking back the cat — going through the mole’s history and discovering exactly what havoc he hath wrought upon the spy service during his period working for the other team.  Much of The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel proceeds in a similar manner. Book one was so dense, and the implications so vast, we need an after action report just to get a good grasp of the fallout.

In fact, the first 100 pages of The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel handles: recapping the first book, reintroducing the characters, walks back the cat on the enemies from book 1, as well as sets up the conflict going forward.  Not bad, huh?

So, if you think that the first book ended a little abruptly, without any follow through, there’s a good reason. It would have added another 50-100 pages. But don’t worry, there is enough new data here that you can read these books back to back without a problem. How do I know that? Because I know three other people who who did just that.

For those of you who fear the repetitive nature of YA books … no. Not at all. There is nothing repeated here. In fact, this one continues to wrap up plot threads left over from the first book — there actually were plot threads dangling, but I didn’t realize it after the grand shootout in the finale. I suspect the series will end in fire.

And good God, the references. I think you need a degree in classical literature and be in on the jokes of three different languages and five different cultures in order to get all of the little hints and nods in the novels. I think I only got half of them, and some PhD’s in philosophy explained some of the others to me. But that’s a general observation, not specific to this book.

In The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel, you see more sides to people we’ve already seen. Whether it’s the magical prince of Australia, or the Artful Dodger and his pet dragon, or even Vladimir von Dread (I have asked. His family crest DOES NOT read as “DREAD IS BAVARIA. BAVARIA IS DREAD”). In fact, if she ever wants to do an anthology, I call dibs on von Dread shorts, he’s just that interesting. It is a vast and colorful crew, and I suspect we’re going to see more of their own backstories as time goes on.

Now, I hear that Jagi hates having her book compared to Harry Potter. I know. It’s not fair to JK Rowling. But I’ve handed book 1 to four other people, and they read only 10% into Unexpected Enlightenment before deciding that it was a deeper and richer world than Potter. And the farther in we go, the deeper everything gets. Or maybe it just shows us how shallow Potter was and we never realized it. There are no johnny one-note characters here. Everyone has different emotions and moods and personalities. Hell, I think Rachel went through more emotions over the course of any five pages of The Raven, The Elf, and Rachel  than the entire body of Hogwarts in 7 novels.

I’m told that it’s unfair to compare the weak parts of Rowling to the best parts of Rachel Griffin. Except that there are no weak parts to the Rachel Griffin novels. The world is deeper and far more cosmopolitan. The characters are more complex. The plot is faster and more tightly written. The bad guys are more threatening. The overarching mystery is more compelling. And anyone who felt that Harry Potter presented a genuine threat to Christianity, I have only one thing to say to you: Keep your eye on the Lion.

As for the plot… the short version is that it’s really wrapping up a lot of plot threads from book 1. And there’s a lot to wrap up: the raven that heralds the doom of worlds; the Outsiders from other worlds; the “Lightbringer,” the ones behind Moriarty last time; the one behind THAT threat; her relationship status; the story behind Rachel’s father and his work as an agent … there’s an awful lot kicking around. And we aren’t even going to get into all of the new various and sundry plot elements kicking around.

SHORT VERSION: five out of five. Go read it.

The Dragon Awards are open and ready for nominations, and I have a list of suggestions you might want to take a look at. If you already  have a good idea of what you want, just click here to go and vote for them. The instructions are right there.

The Love at First Bite series. 

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Spirited Away”

So here we are. The last film of the Miyazaki retrospective, at least up until Miyazaki’s next film comes out. And this movie was saved for last for a reason.

In some ways, it’s pointless to debate Miyazaki’s best film. The man is such a chameleon, who can work in so many varied styles, and is so consistently brilliant, that when you talk about the top of the pile you’re talking about little more than personal preference. I have seen – seriously – “Princess Mononoke”, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Howl’s Moving Castle”, “The Wind Rises”, and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” ALL ranked at number one on some list or another.

With that said – I think it is safe to say that “Spirited Away”, the only Miyazaki film ever to win an Oscar, is the film most commonly cited as Miyazaki’s masterpiece – and not without reason. “Spirited Away” is an astonishing film, absolutely packed with imagination, incredible visuals, memorable characters, and an engaging plot. There’s scene after indelible scene, all underpinned with a metaphysical and philosophical depth that the average director can only dream of, and an attention to detail that’s nothing short of astonishing.

I’ll start off by talking about the dub, something I generally ignore but that is worth being commented upon in this case. All of the Disney dubs are good, and some are even great, but “Spirited Away” is absolutely perfect, easily the best dub job I’ve ever heard. The real coup here is the casting of Daveigh Chase, best known as the voice of Lilo from “Lilo and Stitch”, as Chihiro. Chihiro is a difficult and demanding role, and without an excellent voice actor the character could easily come off as bland, but Daveigh Chase is simply perfect. She nails every aspect of the character, and if not for her brilliant performance the movie would never have worked as well as it did in English.

The opening to “Spirited Away” is one of my favorite scenes of all time. After arriving at a mysteriously empty amusement park, Chihiro’s parents, against Chihiro’s advice, eat piles of food sitting in an abandoned restaurant stall. While they eat Chihiro wanders the park, discovers a magnificent Japanese bathhouse, and encounters a boy named Haku, who warns her to cross the river separating the amusement park from the outside world before sunset. Chihiro tries to leave, but the river is flooded and too deep to cross; worse yet, her parents, having greedily eaten food that didn’t belong to them, have transformed into literal pigs (and in this case, particularly hideous ones), a take on the mythological theme of avoiding the food of the fairies – for a classic example read the myth of Hades and Persephone, and for more modern examples take a look at Ruff the dog in John C. Wright’s “Moth and Cobweb” series, or even Edmund eating Turkish delight in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

The scene where night falls on the park, and the spirits come out for the first time, is a truly stunning sequence, a wonderfully animated setpiece bursting with fantastic imagery. There’s so much to love about this scene – the detailed animation, the fantastic creatures, the score, the way Miyazaki somehow creates a believable fairy world that also comes across as alien and otherworldly, the creepiness of the whole thing, the way he puts us effectively in Chihiro’s shoes and helps us identify with her terror…all of it is simply amazing. And this is the first scene!

This is the hardest of Miyazaki’s movies to work through simply because of sheer originality. If I went through every single reason the movie worked so well, I’d be up all night writing this article. The spirits and fairy tale creatures are fantastic (fans of “Totoro” may recognize the soot spirits used by the wonderful  spider-like character of Komaji), the setting of the bathouse is extraordinarily detailed, the animation is astoundingly well-executed, and the movie simply bursts with ingenuity; everywhere you turn there’s some new feast for the eyes and mind.

Once again, with his handling of Chihiro Miyazaki puts all modern handling of female characters in western animation to shame. Chihiro is brave and admirable, but not in a ball-busting tough as nails feminist way. She is admirable because she never loses hope, never gives up, is kind to those that others shun and revile, and refuses to be deterred from her goals.

An excellent example of this sort of admirable but quiet courage comes early in the film. Haku tells Chihiro to ask the boiler-maker Komaji to help her get a job; no matter what Komaji says or does, she is not to leave until he helps her.

Chihiro goes to the boiler-maker and begs him for help. He ignores her. She begs him again. She ignores her. She takes the time to help his soot spirits bring coal to the boiler, which finally impresses Komaji enough to send her to Yubaba, the witch who rules the Bathhouse. Chihiro doesn’t get mad at Komaji. She doesn’t run away when she sees his frankly terrifying spider-like body. She doesn’t leave when Komaji refuses her. She simply refuses to give up.

Similarly, when she is told to ask the witch Yubaba for a job, the western feminist answer to Yubaba’s refusal and threats would be to challenge her back, or maybe get insulted and try and find some way around her prohibitions. But Chihiro doesn’t do that! Once again, she quietly persists, refusing to leave until she is granted her job, no matter how afraid she gets and how much Yubaba threatens her. Chihiro knows this is her best chance of getting out alive and rescuing her parents, and doesn’t ruin it by acting like a Rey brat.

Later in the movie, when forced to work as, essentially, a slave in the Bathhouse, Chihiro again doesn’t complain about her lot but does the work asked of her to the best of her ability, however unreasonable, and even takes the time to show kindness to spirits and beings that others ignore or hate. Her motivations remain pure; she just wants to rescue her parents. When the spirit No-Face offers her gifts, Chihiro refuses, and in fact she is the only person who is able to use things No-Face gives her without being negatively affected because she is the only one who doesn’t *ask* for his help and doesn’t accept it  for selfish and materialistic reasons.

Two scenes in the movie have become famous in their own right. First is the sad and creepy “ghost train” sequence, where Chihiro rides without speaking on a train to the afterlife surrounded by the silent spirits of the dead. The scene is sad and beautiful, and, as always with Miyazaki, it’s the subtle details that make it; you may find yourself getting bored until your heart skips a beat when you realize that one pair of spirits is clearly a father sitting with his young child, and suddenly a whole history of unanswered questions floods through your mind. The fog outside of the trail, slowly gliding across the surface of the water, is so haunting and gorgeous that your heart practically bursts.

The second famous sequence is the “Dragon Haku” sequence; where the Ghost Train ride represented loss and acceptance, the scene where the dragon form of Haku bringss Chihiro back to the Bathouse represents life and the reviving power of love and kindness; Haku literally carries Chihiro back to the world of the living, something only possible because Chihiro was willing to risk her life and make sacrifices in order to save him. The animation here is – again! – absolutely gorgeous, brimming with energy and dynamism.

There is so much more to say about this film; I’ve barely scratched the surface, really. It is, without question, an absolute masterpiece.

Now, all of that said, do *I* think it’s Miyazaki’s best film?

Actually…no. After a lot of thought, and after changing my mind, I think I still have to give it to “Princess Mononoke”. “Spirited Away” was original and marvelous and beautiful, but “Princess Mononoke” took the varied and conflicting motivations of a changing world – significantly, not unlike the atmosphere of “A Game of Thrones” – and instead of making it either nihilistic sludge or some sort of epic tragedy, made it superversive, and somehow did it in a way that felt in no way like a betrayal of the sort of story he was telling. Miyazaki had a huge cast of characters with their own understandable agendas and motivations that changed throughout the course of the movie, an extremely complex political landscape to navigate through, and some of the best dialogue of any of his films (Lady Eboshi again…”Watch closely, everyone. This is how you kill a god. The trick is not to fear it.”). It’s a marvel he made any sense of it at all.

Epic in scope and ambition, brilliantly executed, and a setting tailormade for tragedy somehow turned superversive…well, when I put all of that together, it’s hard for me to rank it below *any* movie, really, even the great “Spirited Away”.

Does this take away from “Spirited Away”? Not in the slightest. It is a brilliant, amazing, almost perfect film. It is an achievement that no artist but Miyazaki could accomplish. It has earned every single accolade it’s received. If you haven’t seen it, you’re doing more than missing out on one of Miyazaki’s best films. You’re missing out on one of the greatest films, animated or otherwise, anime or otherwise, ever made.

Watch it, and if you haven’t gotten it already perhaps you’ll understand why Miyazaki is not just great. He stands on his own – a giant in the field, matched by nobody, perhaps ever.

Watch this movie, and understand how lucky we are to be able to witness his genius.

Review: Ordinance 93

As I tell everyone I know, I can read practically any political message, as long as they tell me a good story. I’ll even take save the whales, as long as it’s as well done as Star Trek IVOrdinance 93 is much like that, only the message is different. I would normally say that it’s a pro-life message, but not really. Miss Fabry even said in her introduction that she wanted a message that the “pro-choice” and the pro-life crowd could get together on: What happens when you take away the choice?

At the end of the day, I think this is less about American politics and more about the People Republic of China, where the policies in this book already take place. There are some elements that look like they came out of Obamacare news stories, but those are minimal, and could have been written into the story as an afterthought for all I know.

All in all, Fabry has created an interesting dystopia, but also a good spy thriller. Much of the book is dedicated to ex-filtration from this nightmare come true, and a chase, and it’s well done spy craft that’s not exactly John Le Carre, but as close as I’m going to see for a while. We have four strong character studies among our main characters, Justin Winter, and his three companions, code named Spring Fall and Summer (like I said, a good spy thriller — at least it wasn’t Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Sailor), and there are elements of Clare Booth Luce to the way she handles the interpersonal interaction, well- written and realistic. Also, there are some great bits of witty narration that have some interesting turns of phrase that are almost on par with Raymond Chandler … though there are some times when she tries just a little too hard.

At the end of the day, this is less about the politics and more about the chase. Even if you’re easily offended over anything to do with abortion, I doubt this will manage to offend you.

Now, a little nitpicking. Considering the risks that our seasons quartet are taking, it would have been nice had the initial threat by the government been spelled out earlier in the book, instead of saved for the last 20%. There was almost too much implication at points about the dystopia. Sure, this works in a horror movie, like Jaws, but the shark should jump out and drag someone under every once in a while.

My major problem, however, is with the ending. First, I saw the twist coming, and I expected it. This may not be the case with everyone else. Second, the rest of the ending … sigh. It’s open-ended. Yes, there’s enough there for an interesting conclusion, you can build your own … and that’s exactly what Fabry lets you do. I can understand why she did this, and it’s telegraphed in the opening, she’s trying to allow anyone at either side of the abortion issue to create their own ending. J. Michael Straczynski said that good fiction is supposed to ask questions and cause bar fights. I think that if we got a bunch of people who read this book in a bar, talking about the ending, you can cause a good bar fight. So, mission accomplished.

While I can understand what she did, appreciate why she did it, doesn’t mean I like it. However, for a book that’s 99% solid and fun, it’s worth the price.

Let’s call it a 4.5. I recommend it.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author, for Honor at Stake, the first of his “Catholic Vampire romance novels“. He can usually be found on his personal website.

Review: The Watson Chronicles.

For those of you who are suffering from a deficit of Sherlock, wondering why Robert Downy Jr. hasn’t made another Sherlock Holmes film already, and the okay-Elementary isn’t really cutting it, have we got something for you.

A while back, Ann Margaret Lewis wrote Murder in the Vatican: The Church Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, in which she had the venerable detective come face to face with Pope Leo XIII, with a guest cleric named Father Brown. Holmes solved mysteries that Arthur Conan Doyle only hinted at in his books — Sherlock fans will recognize the title of the short story “The Vatican Cameos.”

In book two, Madam Lewis tackles the next great task in filling the Sherlockian mysteries — giving Dr. Watson a personal life.

This book takes place in the latter years of Sherlock Holmes’ career.  He is finally about to move to Sussex and raise bees, and Watson goes back into private practice (since he had been living off of his stories published in The Strand). Watson has a nervous landlord, a sickly partner, and a lovely upstairs neighbor. But, as with Jessica Fletcher, the bodies soon hit the floor, and the good Doctor is drawn into international intrigue and murder, and requires the aid two Holmes brothers.

And that’s part one of The Watson Chronicles: A Sherlock Holmes Novel in Stories.  True, it’s broken down into short story format, but it’s a novel, plain and simple, written in such a fashion as to mirror the writing style and structure as Arthur Conan Doyle.  And if you don’t believe that she writes in his style, I tell you that even the paragraph structure reads like Arthur Conan Doyle.

A good chunk of this book is a romance. No, not written porn, in the modern sense.  There are some elements of romantic comedy, mixed with some solid drama (real drama, not forced conflict for sake of drawing it out). We have a good, strong female romantic lead in the upstairs neighbor, Lucyna Modjeska — Lucy, for short (and if you quibble with me because she doesn’t throw a single punch or kick in the book, I will answer that it takes more strength to deal with both Holmes brothers than could be managed by Xena: Warrior Princess). Lucy is a bit of a saint, with all the flaws that implies.  And if you don’t think a saint can be flawed, read some of the lives of the saints sometimes; there is a reason the church says that saints are to be admired, not necessarily imitated. It becomes an interesting time having a Polish-American Catholic working with two British Anglicans. She is a great addition to this established cast of characters, and works well with all the moving parts involved.

Great line: “One way to impress a Catholic girl is to tell her that you met the pope.”

One of the fun parts of this book — and there are so many, it’s hard to count — is the way Lewis has the stories interact with “reality.” Basically, Watson’s a writer, and writers get feedback, whether they like it or not.  There are some stories that are published years apart, and why is that? How does Watson deal with his own fans? That sort of thing. Lewis also addresses the little feature of how it was ten years between Holmes’ death and resurrection in print, but only 3 years in the Holmes universe, leading to lines like “I’m so glad to know you’re not dead.”

And Mycroft Holmes gets his own murder mystery to solve. It’s fun.  Then again, Mycroft and Sherlock actually act like brothers, at one point one-upping each other.  (Great line #2: “Holmes, you do not like women. Well, I don’t like people.”)   And then there’s the story of his time in Montenegro, which makes for an interesting nod to another overweight genius in detective fiction.

I’m trying to put into words just how much I like this book, and it’s hard. It truly is.  Especially since I don’t want to come off as a fanboy.  This book is so good, I’m almost sad that there is no sequel already planned and penned; though the ending makes for such a good conclusion to Lewis’ Sherlock works, as well as the entire Holmes canon. I’m not exaggerating.  With with Murder in the Vatican, I want to go back and reread all of these stories in order with the original Arthur Conan Doyle works, but I’m afraid that he will come out the worst for it.  But if I do, The Watson Chronicles will be the last thing I read, just so I can end it all on a high note.

Okay, let’s skip to the interesting part. Buy this book.  Buy this book now.  If you didn’t buy Murder in the Vatican, what are you waiting for? Buy that too.  While you’re at it, buy a dozen other copies for your friends and family.

You want more reasons?  Because Ann Lewis has taken every single hole left by Arthur Conan Doyle and filled it.  Did you know that Watson had three wives because Doyle couldn’t keep track of the names or who he had killed? Ann Lewis filled all of that in. Did you know that ACD couldn’t remember if Watson had been shot in the leg or the shoulder? Lewis addresses that too.

You’re going to read this book for every little character touch between Holmes, Watson, Lucy and Mycroft — Mycroft, who is a major player in this book that he never was in actual Sherlock canon, and he has some of the best lines in this book, even when he’s not recreating natural law. You’re going to read this book for Dr. Watson’s wedding being presided over by the “inscrutable” Father Brown, and to see almost every single case Sherlock Holmes has ever solved come back to him in one of the most tightly written, canon-filled and canon-filling books put on paper.

And you’re going to read this book because it is one of the best, most touching, hilarious, heart warming, tear-jerking Sherlock Holmes novels ever written.

Stop reading this review, click on the link, and start reading. Go. Now. Don’t just stare at the page, go.