The Cunning Man

The Cunning Man

It’s often overlooked in speculative fiction that “urban fantasy” refers to an urbanized society rather than a strictly urban area. It is, in fact, quite possible for a novel in this genre to exist in a less dense location, like the expanses of the American West.

That is what D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey have done in The Cunning Man, published by Baen Books in 2019.

The stock market has imploded. The economy has crashed. It is the dark depths of the Great Depression in Utah, and miners and mine owners are locked in deep struggle, the former to survive as people, the latter to wring more dollars out of the former.

Into this volatile situation come two people, father and son, with a sincere desire to help, an earnest faith in God as they understand Him, and well-honed abilities in the workings of a wide variety of folk magic.

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Just the Plague

Just the Plague

I am fond of saying to my friends, especially liberal ones, that the state is not neutral. Any government is fundamentally a “legitimate monopoly on violence,” to use the political-science definition of the word; a blunt instrument of death on those it believes are breaking the social order. Given the country’s history, it makes sense that a Russian writer could elaborate on that point during a period of great upheaval. That writer is Lyudmila Ulitskaya and the novel is Just the Plague.

Just the Plague was written in the 1980s as a movie script, and was rewritten in 2020 as a response to pressing contemporary events. (I should note that Natasha Rapoport claims to have worked with Ulitskaya on the original screenplay. Ulitskaya has not addressed the accusation.) It concerns an outbreak of the pneumonic plague in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but the parallel with our times is clear.

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Let the Mountains Be My Grave

Let the Mountains Be My Grave

A number of countries in Europe define their World War II histories by their resistance fighters. Partisans have been made into heroes since the end of the war, in movies and in novels. In Let the Mountains Be My Grave, Francesca Tacchi (xe/xem) puts not one, but two unique twists on this familiar narrative.

The main character, Veleno, is a partisan in 1944 Italy, fighting the Germans as the Allies move north up the peninsula. Veleno is not aided solely by worldly means; he is in the possession of a locket sacred to Angitia, a goddess of various peoples of central Italy before the Romans conquered the region. His hatred of the occupiers of his homeland is so profound that he has vowed to kill as many Germans as he can before he dies, a fate he feels is inevitable and imminent.

The second element that makes Let the Mountains Be My Grave unique: its central romance is between two men.

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When writers want to bring back the feel of interwar pulp fiction, they will of course exploit the technology and the political situation of the time. They will, however, also use the supernatural as imagined then: ancient, occult and at least somewhat incomprehensible. This, I have seen argued, is taken from the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his emulators, given most famous expression in the Indiana Jones films.

Sometimes, alternate history dwells on this sort of dieselpunk. One such example is Hannu Rajaniemi’s 2018 novel Summerland. It takes what is on the surface a well-trod alternate-history setting, interwar Europe, and combines it with an imaginative realization of the supernatural that never descends into cliche. Summerland is something like what I’d imagine if the likes of Jeff Vandermeer wrote alternate history; it is a book that possesses the odd yet distinct properties of “weird fiction”.

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Interview with Victoria Yeates

If you have seen Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (review here), you know just how indispensible (we like to say indomitable) Bunty Broadacre is.

We sat down with actress Victoria Yeates, who portrays Bunty in The Crimes of Grindelwald (review here) and The Secrets of Dumbledore, when she visited Les 4 Maisons in Liège and talked about her portrayal of the character, fashion and costume design, and hopes for the future of the franchise.

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The region known as Volhynia is not obvious on most maps of Europe. It is remembered in the name of the Volyn Oblast in Ukraine. The region’s boundaries are vague, but today it is somewhere between northwestern Ukraine, southwestern Belarus and southeastern Poland. Before Ukraine gained its independence, it was ruled by the Soviet Union. Before World War II, Volhynia was the southeastern fringe of the Second Polish Republic. It is a region historically populated by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. During World War II, it descended into a nightmare not unlike what became of Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the 1990s. Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered Poles, and the Poles retaliated in kind.

Volhynia (in Polish Wołyń, on Amazon in English as Hatred, derived from the short-story collection by Stanisław Srokowski on which the movie is based) is a 2016 Polish war drama directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, which dramatizes that awful period in the region’s history.

It is a film that begins, strangely enough, quite happily, with a wedding. There is much singing and dancing and general merriment. Making this even more hopeful is the fact that it is a wedding between a Polish girl and a Ukrainian boy. A Ukrainian priest talks of tolerance. The sister of the bride, Zofia — the main character — is in love with another Ukrainian boy, but her father has decided she is to marry an older Polish municipal authority. Even so, she continues to dally with her beau.

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Fantastic Beasts 3: The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Secrets of Dumbledore

The Fantastic Beasts series has been slow to pick up the pace. After a lackluster debut with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, which was an enjoyable movie but nothing groundbreaking, followed by The Crimes of Grindelwald (review here), which was thoroughly enjoyable but flawed in many ways, we now have an absolute winner in the form of the third installment, The Secrets of Dumbledore. It’s only just been released, and not yet released in some countries, so expect no spoilers in this review.

A couple of years after the events in Paris that took place in The Crimes of Grindelwald, we find an intrepid team of — in many cases slightly traumatized — heroes, trying to put a final stop to the rise and warmongering plans of Gellert Grindelwald. The role has switched from Johnny Depp to Mads Mikkelsen, just one of the many controversies surrounding this release. That said, while I personally felt that Depp made an excellent Grindelwald, Mikkelsen’s much more serious take on the role makes Grindelwald all that more menacing and threatening a villain.

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Death on the Nile

Death on the Nile

Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s world-class detective, in Death on the Nile, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t rise to the standard set by Murder on the Orient Express five years ago.

The sequel is beautifully done. Aficionados of dieselpunk and the 1930s will find plenty to like here. There are spectacular shots of the Nile, the riverboat on which most of the action takes place, and the Temples of Abu Simbel, which at the time were still located right on the water. (The complex was controversially relocated in 1968, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam raised the water level.)

Sophie Okonedo lip-syncs era-appropriate blues music by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The rest of the cast is no less impressive. Gal Gadot, of Wonder Woman fame, stars as a wealthy heiress who fears for her life. Emma Mackey, best known for portraying Maeve Wiley in the Netflix comedy-drama series Sex Education, plays her rival for the affections of Armie Hammer’s character. Readers will recognize Hammer from Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (our review here).

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The Last Battle

The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, Stephen Harding tells the unlikely tale of Allied and former Nazi troops making common cause to protect prominent French prisoners of war from the Waffen-SS.

This Battle of Castle Itter really happened, on May 5, 1945 — three days before victory in Europe. Elements of the American 12th Armored Division, Austrian resistance fighters, defected soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and several of the French prisoners themselves held off an attack by SS diehards before they could be relieved by the 142nd Infantry Regiment.

Among the prisoners were former prime ministers (and bitter rivals) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former army commanders Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and the former leader of the French far right, François de La Rocque, who had turned against Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime to secretly provide intelligence to the British.

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Ever since I read it my senior year of high school, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has been one of my favorite novels. It is a farce of bureaucracy, and as life becomes more and more bureaucratized, more and more people find themselves neck deep in this farce. It is a book that describes that unmooring, niggling internal monologue of “this is cruel and insane and it kills people and it could be changed so WHY ARE WE STILL DOING IT?!” that permeates so much of life in the twenty-first century. I quite enjoyed the 1970 film adaptation, and was excited to see how the 2019 miniseries would work out.

The series is overall quite faithful to the book. Many incidents are taken straight from the pages of the novel, and some are all the more impactful now that we can see, rather than imagine, them. I know that sounds trite, but it is one experience to read about a reckless pilot, McWatt, accidentally killing Kid Sampson; it is another to see the propeller of the plane scatter human gore across McWatt’s cockpit and then the explosion when he rams his plane into a mountain to atone for his crimes.

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