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Monday, November 27, 2017

My Least Favorite Disney Villains

If there is one company that knows the art of making good villains, its Disney. Whether their villains appear in movies, shows or comics and whether they are completely original creations or adapted from another source, one can usually count on the House of Mouse to bring worthwhile additions to the legions of fictional evil-doers.
Usually being the keyword here, because the fact is that not every Disney-villain can be a Xanatos or a Frollo and that's fine; but some does not even reach to the level of "good", being really lackluster in the role of villain.
Below are a few of my least favorite Disney-villains and I should stress this is just my personal opinion. Oh, and the list is in no particular order. I thought about ranking them, but ultimately decided against it.
Anyway, on with the list:



Assistant Mayor Dawn Bellwether (Zootopia)




Out of all the surprise-villains in Disney-movies, Bellwether is by far the weakest. Mostly because this was the fourth time in a row that Disney used the same shtick and by then it was no longer fresh or interesting. I really like Zootopia and consider it one of Disney's finest movies, but it has nothing to do with its villain who is one of the weakest aspects of another-wise great movie.




Various Paul Murry villains (Mickey Mouse comics)




I must admit that I've never been a fan of Paul Murry's work. I'm aware that there are people who like his comics, but none that I've read have really impressed me. Especially not the ones he did in collaboration with Carl Fallberg; bog-standard mystery/adventure-stories in which a personality-free Mickey goes up against some of the blandest, most generic crooks ever seen in a Disney-comic. Considering that Mickey actually has a rogues'-gallery that any superhero would be proud of, the lack of even decent new villains (save perhaps Emil Eagle) during the Murry-era is pretty depressing.




Edgar (The Aristocats)




Edgar is usually regarded as the worst villain in the Disney Animated Canon and for good reason. First of all, he manages to be bumbling and non-threatening even for a comedic villain;
compare Edgar to Prince John from Disney's Robin Hood. Sure, PJ may have been a crybaby with mommy-issues, but he was also genuinely nasty; bleeding his subjects dry and wanting to kill the hero. Edgar lacks even the tiniest hint of any menacing qualities, which is why The Aristocats as a movie is severely lacking in terms of meaningful conflict. There's also the fact that his reason for getting rid of Duchess and the kittens really makes no sense: It seems reasonable to assume that he would be the cats' primary care-taker, which means that, as long as he took good care of the cats he should be able to spend at least some of the money on himself. What are the cats going to do about it? They're cats.

Leaving that aside, if you're going to get rid of the cats why not wait until after your employer is dead? Then again this is the same guy who believed that cats actually have nine lives, so we're not exactly talking criminal mastermind here.
I will however say one thing for Edgar: He has some pretty amusing facial expressions.






Sarousch (The Hunchback of Notre Dame 2)




The original The Hunchback of Notre Dame gave us one of the all-time great Disney villains in Judge Claude Frollo; as dark and complex a villain that you will ever find in a Disney film. A man who seemed to embody so many real-life evils such as bigotry, abuse, religious hypocrisy, all while having an amazing villain-song to boot. What does the sequel give us? A narcissistic circus-owner who wants to steal a bell. Yeah.
I know that few, if any of the sequel villains can measure up to the original and there was no way that any new villain could completely fill Frollo's shoes, but this guy was just awful regardless. Edgar may be the worst villain in the Animated Canon, but Sarousch is a strong contender for worst Disney-villain period.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Some Great One-Off Characters

Most TV-shows, whether live-action or animated, tend to rely on a recurring cast of characters that the viewer gets to know intimately during the course of the series. However, every once in a while, a character appears that manage to make a lasting impression, despite only playing a (usually) major role in one episode. Below are a few of these "one-offs" that have remained in my memory over the years. I should point out that all the characters on this list are from shows that features a recurring cast, hence why there are no examples from The Twilight Zone or Decalogue to be found on it.



Hank Scorpio (The Simpsons)




Its been a long time since I lost any interest in The Simpsons, but that does not prevent me from looking back with a certain fondness at some of the older episodes. One of my favorite episodes of the show is You Only Move Twice, in which the family moves to another city, when Homer gets offered a job at Globex Corporation, headed by Hank Scorpio.

What makes Scorpio such a memorable character is his dual-nature. On one hand, he's a megalomaniacal super-villain with dreams of World Conquest, but he's also a genuinely friendly guy who cares about his employees, making him a far better person to work for than, say, Monty Burns. The fact that he gets a Shirley Bassey-esque theme song, worthy of any Bond villain, is also a point in his favor.

Hugo DeVries (Inspector Morse)



Based on the novels by Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse is one of the finest detective-series to come out of Britain. My personal favorite episode is one that's actually not based on a novel; namely, Masonic Mysteries. In this episode, Morse finds himself the target of a ghost from his past: Hugo DeVries, a con-man he sent to jail decades earlier and who is now out for revenge.

Vicious and intelligent, if there ever was a criminal in this series that qualified as Morse's own Professor Moriarty its DeVries. Played to chilling perfection by Ian McDiarmid, DeVries does not actually appear all that much in the episode, but his presence is felt throughout it. The scene in which he and Morse finally meet each other face to face is one of my favorite scenes of its type, in any show.

Lt. Joe Bookman (Seinfeld)




Appearing in the season 3 episode The Library (plus a cameo in the series finale), Lt. Joe Bookman is a library cop with an extreme dedication towards his job. His deadpan personality, rapid-fire way of speaking and the fact that he acts like a regular cop on the hunt for dangerous criminals, rather than library delinquents, combine to make Bookman one of the most memorable and funniest minor characters in this seminal sit-com.


Andy Von de Oniyate (Cowboy Bebop)


I was going to write something about Andy and how well he works as a reflection of the show's lead character Spike Spiegel. However, try as I might I was unable to come up with any argument for what makes Andy a great character that this post didn't make years ago and better. So go and read it and see you, Space Cowboy.

Krombopulos Michael (Rick & Morty)



Rick & Morty is not quite among my favorite cartoons, but there are some episodes of it that I really like (the one with the parasites, for example) and its not lacking in memorable one-off characters. My personal favorite is Krombopulos Michael, an alien assassin who we first see buying weapons from Rick and afterwards ends up getting killed by Morty, while trying to assassinate the telepathic gaseous life-form, which later calls itself Fart. Despite being only in two brief scenes in an episode, Krombopulos Michael's affable demeanor and his cheerful enthusiasm towards his work ("Oh, boy! Here I go killing again") makes him one of the funniest and most likable characters in the show.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Chapter 25

From The Private Journal of Her Majesty, Argath I:


Though they do not say it in my presence, I am aware that the people at court and those who make up the Royal Council, believe that I have changed since the crown was put on my head. Of course, they are mistaken; the person they knew during all these years was but a role I played, a mask that I wore, in order to help me achieve my initial goal. Now that I rule this land, I no longer have need for that kind of pretense and I can be my true self; the me that have been known only to a select few, such as my pets or Lorenzo, my loyal protege, whom I've come to regard almost as a son. Besides, if the inhabitants of the palace find me stern, so much the better. As I told the council, I expect my orders to be carried out without protest, no matter the prize.

Although my hands are red and will grow redder still in the near future, those who think me entirely devoid of compassion are mistaken. I am perfectly capable, sometimes even willing, to show kindness toward those of my subjects that I deem deserving of it. Granted, I rarely find it necessary to demonstrate the softer aspects of my character, though recently, an opportunity to do so presented itself. 

It was on this very day, in fact: Shortly after I had left my throne-room after conveying my orders to general Jeraddin, I was reached by the news that my councilman, Felix had been found unconscious in one of the hallways. 
I asked the servant who brought me the news where Felix was right now and was told that he had been taken to one of the palace wings, in which his domicile is located. 
Immediately, I jotted down a few words on a pen and paper and handed it to the servant.
"Take this to the doctor", I said.
The servant bowed and left the room. Moments later, the cake I had ordered from the kitchen arrived.

As I began digging into the slice that one of my pets (her name is of no importance at the moment) had cut out of the cake and placed on the plate before me, I couldn't help but feel concerned for my councilman's health. After all, he had always been a loyal servant to the crown and it would be a shame to lose him. I vowed to make a courtesy-call, as soon as opportunity presented itself.


My schedule, as usual, was quite full and it was not until a few hours later that I was able to make good on the promise I had made to myself. I headed to the Eastern wing. I did not bother to knock on the door (After all, do not all rooms in this palace belong to me?), but headed straight into the spacious apartment that Felix shared with his wife.

I figured that I would find the two of them in the bedroom; Felix lying in bed, having been administered to by the doctor with his wife, Lucinda, watching over him. It had been a long time since I had last visited them, but thankfully, my memory has always been good and I had no trouble locating the bedroom.

I did not enter the room immediately, but remained in the doorway, watching the scene in front of me. It was exactly as I had pictured it: Felix lied in bed, eyes closed, his breathing so faint that at first, I had trouble hearing it. Lucinda sat by his bedside, clutching one of his hands.

Soon, Lucinda rose from her chair, having detected the presence of another conscious person in the vicinity. She turned around and her eyes met mine.
"Your Majesty", she said, visibly taken aback. "What an unexpected honor".
She curtsied deeply, grabbing the hem of her dress. 
"We can not stand here" I said, gesturing for her to rise. "Let us resume this conversation in your living room."

As I sat down in a plush red sofa, Lucinda, always the gracious host, asked me if I wanted any refreshments.
"Coffee", I said and immediately after, my stomach growled. "Oh, and something light to nibble at, if you have it."
"As you wish, Your Majesty."
"We can dispose with the formalities" I said, magnanimously. "After all, we are old friends, you and I."
"It has been so long since you last visited, I feared that I might have invoked your displeasure."
I smiled.
"Believe me, Lucinda, if you had done something to make me angry, I would have been sure to let you know it. No, I have simply been busy."

Having been thus reassured that she was still in my good graces, Lucinda went out into the kitchen. Despite their wealth, she and her husband do not employ any servants and so, she would have to prepare the coffee on her own.
Shortly thereafter, she returned, carrying a tray, which she sat down on the coffee table. Having taken a sip of the coffee and helped myself to several of the small, triangular sandwiches that Lucinda had prepared, I decided it was time to cut to the chase:

"I heard that your husband is not feeling well", I said. "Its nothing serious, I hope?"
"The doctor did not tell you?" Lucinda asked, with some surprise. "I thought he would have."
I confessed that I had not had the opportunity to talk to the doctor yet.
"Apparently, its a relapse of the fever he had recently, brought about by a severe shock. The doctor has given him some medicine, but he is to remain in bed for a few days. I'm afraid he'll have to be absent from some of the Council meetings."
"Perfectly understandable", I assured her, reaching for another sandwich. 

My eyes drifted across the room and eventually came to rest upon a portrait of two boys, arms on each other's shoulders, which hung on the wall.
"How are the twins doing at school?" I asked, recalling that Felix and Lucinda's offspring were attending their first year at the same prestigious boarding-school that their father had once attended. 
"Oh, they are doing just fine", Lucinda said, smiling the smile of a proud mother. "Its kind of you to ask."
"Not at all. I shall send them a small gift, do you think they would enjoyed that."
Lucinda beamed.
"They'll be delighted."


Shortly thereafter, I bade Lucinda farewell, telling her to give her husband my regards when he woke up. I was relieved to hear that he was not suffering from anything life-threatening. However, there was something that bothered me:
According to Lucinda (and the doctor), the reason for Felix' collapse had been a severe shock. What exactly could have been the reason for this shock? I had to find out.
I went to Lorenzo's quarters, where I found my fox busying himself with his throwing-knives.
"Do you know if Felix have been talking to someone today?" I asked.
Lorenzo went and retrieved his knives from the dartboard.
"Didn't he remain in the meeting room together with old Cornelius, before coming to the throne room?"
"Come to think of it, he did" I said. "Curious, those two are not exactly bosom friends."
"Shall I make some inquiries?" Lorenzo asked, astute as always.
"Yes, see if you can find out anything and report to me when you've learned something of interest."
Lorenzo bowed.
"As you command, my Queen."
With that, there was nothing more to say and so I left my fox to his devises.

It is now night outside and I am about to put the quill aside and go to bed, after another day of seeing to the Kingdom's affairs. Next to me is the vial filled with the potion that the doctor has mixed for me, as a shield against the ghosts that haunts either my chamber or my mind.
 I must commend the doctor; his mixture has allowed me to sleep peacefully every night since I took it. If any specters appear, I pay them no heed. 
The potion is not without its side-effects, however. For one, I no longer dream at all: About an hour or so after I've taken it, I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep and I can't help but wonder if this is what death is like. 

One might argue that I have no need of dreams, seeing as how I am in the process of turning all my dreams into reality and I will admit that that is a good point. That said, there is one type of dream I miss: The dream in which he is still alive.

The other side-effect is of a more physical nature. There seem to be something in the potion that has a very stimulating effect on my appetite, for I can not go long without something to eat and my physique has begun to reflect that. At first, when I stared in the mirror and realized that I would have to ask the palace tailor to let out most of my wardrobe, I was filled with a sense of dismay. The more I think about it, though, the more certain I am that this new look actually suits me; combined with my height and assisted by the clothes I usually wear, I think my recent weight-gain makes me look more imposing, as long as I keep it under control.

*****

Argath closed her journal shut and, grabbing the vial, uncorked it and put it to her lips. She could feel the taste of mint on her tongue, as the potion was poured down her throat. Having taken her sleeping-aid, the Queen of Vinoli fixed her eyes eagerly upon the door. Soon, there would be a knock and the two chambermaids she had sent for would enter the room, their slim bodies wrapped in the see-through nightgowns they had been instructed to wear and she sighed with pleasure, at the thought of having them take turns servicing her, as she began her journey into night.














Monday, October 23, 2017

Amsterdam

Thursday last week I went on a trip to Amsterdam with my brother and his girlfriend. It was my first visit to this city and to Holland in particular and all in all, I had a good time.
 Among other things, we went to two museums: The Van Gogh Museum; dedicated to that great Dutch painter, though we were somewhat disappointed to learn that Starry Night was not on display there, but instead at MoMA in New York. The other museum was Body Worlds, in which one can view body-parts, donated by people after they have passed on. An educating and informative, if perhaps, somewhat morbid experience.

I'm afraid I did not smoke any weed, or engaged the services of a prostitute, as is expected of tourists to Amsterdam (there's always next time though). Instead, I spent most of my money on books. Here's what I bought:

Borges, Jorge Luis: The Book of Imaginary Beings
Byatt, A.S.: The Children's Book
Catling, B: The Vorrh
Davis, Rob: The Motherless Oven
Ferris, Emil: My Favorite Thing Is Monsters
Gazdanov, Gaito: The Spectre of Alexander Wolf
Jason: Lost Cat
Mizuki, Shigeru: Showa: A History of Japan, 1926-1939
Tremain, Rose: Music & Silence
Wolfe, Gene: Pirate Freedom
Zweig, Stefan: Beware of Pity

Who knows, perhaps I will write a thing or two about some of these volumes in the future? Time will tell.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Fox and the Dragon

In my life I've been the target of various insults: Scoundrel, rogue and villain, these are all words that have been hurled at me at one point or another. Now that I am one of the most powerful people in the kingdom, the insults have stopped. At least, no-one calls me any of the above words to my face any longer, but it wouldn't surprise me if they persisted behind my back.

Well, let them talk; frankly, I do not give a damn, what people think of me. Most of it is true, anyway. However, there is one thing no-one can accuse me of and that is disloyalty. I have always been loyal to the one person in my life who has truly mattered: She took me off the streets and made me the fox I am today.
I still remember our first meeting; its a tale that I believe is worth telling and so, I've decided to write it down. Now, seeing as how I am the protagonist, I thought it fitting that I would touch briefly on my early childhood. Don't worry, it won't take long.

I never knew my parents, I was left on the doorsteps of an orphanage, wrapped in a blanket. The blanket had the name Lorenzo stitched into it and so, that was the name I was given. The orphanage was run by a religious order, worshiping a minor deity called Tzubulcha. It was never really clear what this Tzubulcha was a God of, but living in an orphanage dedicated to him required being woken up at 5 in the morning, eat breakfast and after that work at various assigned tasks, up until lunch. After lunch, we had two hours of spare time, before work continued until bedtime, which was by sundown.
Rules were strict, those who failed to show proper respect or slacked off, felt the sting of the overseer's cane on their backsides. Many were the times when I and the other orphans lied awake at night, listening to some poor bastard wetting their pillow with their tears.

Personally, I did not get beaten very often, but I soon realized that this orphanage was not a place for me.
You see, although I kept my head down, deep inside, I was yearning for adventure and excitement: I did not wish to be apprenticed to one of the craftsmen that would come to the orphanage every once in a while and, after having paid a sum of money, left with some boy or girl in tow, nor did the life of an acolyte hold any appeal to me. So, at the night of my eleventh birthday, I decided that it was time to leave.

That night I laid in my bed in the dormitory that I shared with twenty other boys (the girls' dormitory was next door) and waited until I could hear the sound of my fellow orphan's snoring. As soon as I knew the coast was clear, I slipped out of bed. It was pitch black, but I had carefully memorized the way to the door, so that I wouldn't accidentally walk into something and risk waking everyone up. Just as I put my foot down on the wooden floor, I heard a sleepy voice, slightly above me:
"'Enzo, where are you going?"
I turned around and noticed the black-furred head of the mole who was my bunk-mate, look down on me with heavy-lid eyes.
I gestured for him to be quiet.
"My stomach's acting up", I explained. "I'm going to the privy. You won't squeal on me, will you?"
"Can I have your bowl of porridge, tomorrow?" The little glutton asked, fixing me with eager, greedy eyes.
"Sure."
I had no problem making that promise. After all, tomorrow I'd be long gone.

With cat-like thread, I crept up to the door and carefully opened it. My next objective was to get downstairs. I knew that the second highest  and the third lowest step of the staircase both creaked when stepped upon and so, I took care to avoid them. Once on the bottom floor, I made way to the kitchen, to pilfer some supplies for my journey.

If you were expecting there to be some sort of dramatic incident, such as me being discovered, I'm afraid I must disappoint you. Everything went without a hitch. I first threw the sack of provisions that I had acquired over the high fence which surrounded the orphanage, before climbing over it myself. Seconds later, I found myself on the streets of the capital. My friends, if you have never lived your entire life under strict, suffocating rules, not being able to go wherever you want or do whatever you want, you can not understand the sheer exhilarating feeling of freedom that swept over me at that moment. I almost shouted with joy, but fortunately, discretion won out: I didn't want to risk waking everyone up and besides, I needed to get as far away from the orphanage as possible, before one of the overseers came to wake us up and my escape was discovered.

What path should I take? I could go down to the harbor and seek employ as a cabin-boy on one of the many ships which laid anchored there. This idea was not without appeal, I could already see my self, traversing the oceans, visiting strange and exotic nations. Of course, there was a problem with this plan: I could swim. Now, some of you may point out that there are plenty of sailors who have never bothered to learn how to swim either, but I had no wish to be fish-food, if I could avoid it. Drowning has always seemed to be one of the most terrible ways to die.

Consequently, I put my sailor-plans on hold for an indefinite time. My other idea was as follows: Reading material in the orphanage had been very limited, but one of the older boys had managed to get ahold of a a pamphlet which detailed the exploits of a gang of criminals. To us, that pamphlet was like holy scripture. We would read from it in secret and imagine ourselves in the role of its lawless protagonists. Well, why shouldn't I make that fantasy into reality? Surely, I could not be the first orphan who had ran away and become a member of a criminal society? Such was my reasoning, as I walked the streets of the capital that summer-night.

I wandered the streets aimlessly, not knowing or caring where they would take me.
Occasionally, I saw a nightwatchman out on patrol. When that happened, I quickly ducked into an alley. I hadn't actually done anything illegal, as far as I knew, but I thought it best to stay out of their sight, I didn't want to answer any awkward questions. I kept walking, feeling more alive than I can remember ever having done in the short time I had been alive: The World was my oyster.
Just then, a girl about my age; a rodent with blonde pig-tails, came running at a great speed and crashed into me, causing the both of us to end up in a pile.
"Watch where you're going", the girl snapped at me before she ran off, as quick as her legs could carry her.
My head was still ringing from the collusion and so, when I had worked up a snappy comeback, the girl was already gone. However, I saw that she had dropped a small brooch. I picked the brooch up and looked at it. It was decorated with tiny gemstones, I had a feeling that it did not belong to the girl. At that moment, I heard footsteps approaching and so I quickly slipped the brooch in my pocket and made myself scarce.

Being the no doubt intelligent person that you are, dear reader, you have no doubt come to the same conclusion that I did, all those years ago: Namely, that the girl was a thief. Why else would she be running away in such a hurry? Not to mention being out at this hour. A thought occurred to me; what if the girl was part of some kind of gang? If so, she could be my ticket into it, I had to find her. With that objective in mind, I went back to the street where I had first ran into the girl. No-one was there, her pursuers had moved on. I then headed the way that I noticed the girl had taken, hoping that she didn't have too much of a head-start.

I had not gotten far before a huge paw clamped over my mouth. The next moment, two individuals stepped into view.
One of them was a weasel, only a few years older than me from what I could tell and brandishing a knife in his belt. The other, was her.
"Alright, fox-boy", the weasel said, his voice carrying with it the smell of garlic. "Hand over the stuff and no tricks."
"We know you have the brooch", the girl said in an accusatory tone. "No-one else could have taken it."
I signaled with my eyes that I wanted to say something, hoping that they would understand.
"Let him speak, " said the weasel, who seemed to be the leader.
The third member of the group obeyed and I turned my head slightly, to get a look at him:

He was a canine and though he seemed to be the same age as his two companions, stood taller than the both of them. One look at his imposing physique and I made a mental note not to get on this fellow's bad side.
"Well?" The weasel said. "What is it? Spit it out."
I turned to the rat-girl.
"I always planned on giving you the bracelet back", I said. "Here it is."
I fished the brooch out from my pocket and immediately, the girl reached out and snatched it.
"Why did you want to give it back?" She asked, with an incredulous look on her face. "You must have realized I stole it, didn't you?"
I nodded.
"Then, why?"
"Are you three part of a gang?" I asked, trying to conceal the excitement in my voice. "You must be. I've heard that all criminals in the capital are part of one."
"So?" The weasel asked, his left eyebrow crooked. "What's it to you?"
"I want to join you", I explained. "That's why I returned it."

The trio looked at me as if I was crazy.
"Please". At that moment, I was prepared to fall down on my knees and beg. "I can't go back to the orphanage. I won't go back!"
The weasel stroke his chin, as people are wont to do when they contemplate something.
"What do you think?" He said, turning to the girl, who stood there with one paw on her hip.
"Our numbers have been getting smaller", she said. "Just two days ago, Serro was grabbed by the watch, remember?"
"That's true, I think the boss would appreciate some fresh blood. Still, how do we know he's not a spy?"
"I swear I'm not", I protested.

"Don't be ridiculous", the girl said, pointing at me. "Look at those clothes: A spy for the watch would be dressed much more shabbily, so's we would take him for one of us. Besides, the boss is a clever guy, if the kid's a spy, he'll figure out it pretty quickly. I think we should give the kid a chance."

I didn't  exactly like being called a kid by someone who wasn't my elder and shorter than me to boot, but decided to keep quiet.
The weasel shrugged.
"Fine", he said, though there was a reluctant tone in his voice.
The girl turned and looked up at the dog. "Is that alright with you?" She asked.
No reply came from the dog's mouth, but he did nod in his head.
"Then its settled", the weasel said. "You'll come with us and be presented for the boss. By the way, what's your name?"
"Lorenzo."
"Well, Lorenzo, I'm Lucien, the girl's Rachel and the big guy goes by the name of Bruno, he can't speak, but he can hear us just fine. Can't you, Bruno?"
Once again, Bruno nodded. This time, the nod came with a grin, showing a row of yellowing teeth.

"Anyway", said the weasel, slapping his paws together. "Now that we all know each other, let's get out of here."
As we made our way through the streets, I decided to ask Rachel what our destination was.
"Well", she said. "Let me put it like this: Have you ever seen the remains of a dead body before?"
I confessed that I had not.
Rachel turned and grinned at me, her front-teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
"You will in a moment, we're heading for the catacombs."

******

In the past, the catacombs had been the place in which the citizens of the capital had buried their dead. As the population grew, however, it soon became more in vogue to cremate your dead relatives and keep their ashes in an urn at home. During daytime, guided tours are given of the catacombs, but visitors are only allowed into certain areas and are told not to stray from the group, since it could mean them getting lost there forever.

We reached one of the entrances and after Rachel had picked the lock, we entered. With Lucien taking the lead, carrying a lit torch, we proceeded deeper and deeper down into the bowels of the earth. We wandered for what seemed to be an eternity, occasionally having to crouch down as the tunnels we walked in became smaller. Eventually, we came out into a large, open room, lit up by several torches and filled with several individuals engaging in various activities:
 Some were playing dice or cards, some were sharpening their knifes and some simply chattered away.As we entered the room, everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at us, some shouted words of greeting at Rachel, Lucien and Bruno.
At the end of the room, an orangutan wearing a golden chain around his neck, sat in a large chair. He waved at us, or rather at my new acquaintances, to approach; the rings adorning his fingers glittered in the torchlight.

"Welcome back home", the orangutan said. "How did your expedition go?"
The trio immediately reached down into their pockets and produced an assortment valuables, among them was the brooch. They put the objects on a tarnished wooden table which stood nearby. Getting out of his chair, the orangutan picked up each objects, turned them around and studied them carefully.
"A good haul", he said, with a satisfied nod. "Well done."
"Thanks, boss" the trio said in chorus, beaming like children whom had just received rare praise from a stern parent.
I had remained quiet during all this, thinking it prudent to wait until I had been introduced, but my patience was starting to wear thin. Thankfully, it was just then, that the boss decided to notice the newcomer in the room:

"Who is this?" He asked.
"His name is Lorenzo, boss. He wants to join up with us." Lucien explained.
"Is that so?"
The orangutan scratched his cheek while looking at me. I felt as if I was one of the precious items on the table, being held up for scrutiny.
Then, suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed heartily.
"Very well", he said, squeezing my shoulder. "Anyone who wishes to be a member of our little family is welcome." He leaned close to me and whispered in my ear:
"But I warn you, boy. If I find out that you've played me for a fool, you won't live to regret it."

*****

Thus I became a member of the 'family' and I am pleased to say that the boss never had cause to regret letting me join. I soon became a full-fledged member of the gang and participated in everything from burglaries, to smuggling. Occasionally, we also had skirmishes with other gangs in the city. We won, often enough, but not without losses. 
That said, the criminal activity which I proved myself most suited for, was pick-pocketing.
I became pretty good at it and honed my talents, until a more skilled and discreet pick-pocket and cut-purse could not be found in the capital.
Then, the Day came. 

It was about two years after I had joined. On a winter's day like many others, with snow blanketing the streets. It was market-day and the square was packed with people shopping. Rachel and I were among the rogues that were there and we had already managed to get quite a haul. Rachel wanted us to quit while we were ahead and go and get something warm to drink, but I was not ready yet; I was on a roll. As my eyes swept over the crowd, my eyes fell upon one shopper in particular:

"Look", I whispered to my companion. "That person over there. She has the fattest pouch I've seen and its hanging directly from her belt. Its a wonder no-one has snatched it."
"Who?" Rachel asked.
"Over there, by the bookstall", I said.
Rachel followed my finger and when she saw where I was pointing, she let out a gasp.
"That's a dragon", she said.
"Thank you, captain obvious, I replied sarcastically. "So?"

Rachel stared at me, it was the same look in her eye she had had on the night when we first met.
"The only dragons around here are members of the royal family. Stealing from them is very risky."
"Only if you get caught", I said cockily, "and I have never been caught."
"Please tell me you are not..." Rachel began.
I nodded.
"If you are afraid, you can go and wait for me at the cafe . I'll pay for whatever you want when I get there. Or rather, her highness over there will pay."

Realizing that I had made up my mind and that there was no talking me out of it, Rachel only shook her head.
"It was nice knowing you", she said, trying hard to sound casual.
Paying no attention to her words, I approached the bookstall, walking rapidly, while I looked up at the sky. It didn't take long until I made physical contact with my target
The streets were slippery with ice and as a consequence of that, we both ended up on all four.
The next moment, the bookseller, a huge gorilla wearing a pair of small, round spectacles, clipped me on the back of my head, so that I briefly saw stars dancing.

"Watch were you're going, brat!" The bookseller growled at me. He then proceeded to help his customer up, brushing the snow of her overcoat.
"A thousand pardons, your highness" he said in a sycophantic tone, before turning around and looking at me. "Apologize this instant you low-life", he commanded.
"Its fine", the dragon said. "Accidents happen. Just be more careful next time, will you?"
"Y...yes, m'a'm" I stuttered, affecting a humble and regretful look. "By the way, I believe I caused you to drop your pouch."
"So you did. Would you mind getting it for me?"

Seeing as how she begged me so nicely, how could I refuse. The purse had ended up underneath the stall; I crawled down under it.
On my person, I always carried with me a purse filled with false coins. It was a moment's work to grab the dragon's purse and stuff it under my collar. I then handed her the substitute pouch.
"Here you go, ma'm" I said with a bow. "Again, I apologize for my clumsiness."
She gave me an approving nod, then having apparently forgot about me, turned to the bookseller:
"Have the books delivered to the palace", she said. "Oh, and I would like that one wrapped. Its a gift."
With that she left, none the wiser, the crowded parting itself in order to let her pass.

Looking around, I saw that Rachel too, had left. No doubt she had taken my advice.
I pictured the look on her face when I entered The cafe and produced my prize. Before doing that though, I wanted to see just how much the purse contained. 
Blending in with the crowd, I walked in the opposite direction of the dragon, until I was a safe distance from the town-square. There, I snuck into a secluded back-alley, where I opened the purse and poured out its contents into my outstretched paw.

I let out a giggle of delight, with this kind of money, I could eat well for several weeks and treat my friends and that was after I gave the boss his share. Was I worried that the rightful owner of this pouch would find a way to track me down? Not in the least; I know this city like the back of my paw and besides, at the time I did not look any different from any other fox.
I was still busy congratulating myself, when I noticed something else that had come out of the pouch. Something small and shiny. I picked up the strange object and looked at it carefully; it looked oddly familiar, but what was it? Some kind of gemstone? No, it didn't feel like it. Then I realized what it was:
A dragon scale.

"Haven't your parents taught you that its wrong to take the belongings of others?" A feminine voice behind me said, it was a voice that I thought I would never hear again.
I did not waste time turning around to look at the voice's owner, instead, I ran as quickly as my legs could carry me. I was just about to jump over a fence, when I felt myself being pulled back, as if by some invisible force. Before I knew what was happening, I was lying on my back, with the dragon's foot on my chest.

She looked down at me, her eyes cold. There was a smile on her face, but it did not reach her eyes.
"You know", she said, "I've never been robbed before. I believe that the proper procedure is to call for the city watch, so that they can arrest you, haul you in front of a judge and throw your sorry carcass in jail. I'm sure that you'd be a hit with all the other inmates."
"Or", she continued. "In order to save the tax-payers any unnecessary expenses, I could just...kill you right here. Now, I've never actually killed anyone before, but it can't be that hard; I'll just put my fingers around your neck and squeeze."
The dragon's words chilled me to the bone; during my brief stint with the gang I had become acquainted with some pretty brutal types, but I could not recall any of them talking about snuffing out a life in such a casual manner. It was, of course, especially upsetting since the life that was about to be snuffed out was my own.

At this point, I inwardly cursed my hubris and folly, wishing that I had heeded Rachel's words. Rachel, never would I see her again, or Lucien or Bruno. Tears welled up in my eyes.
"Fortunately for you", the dragon said. "None of that is going to happen. I'm sorry, did you say something?"
"Don't kill me", I begged. "I'll do anything you want."
The dragon looked at me with an annoyed expression on her face.
"Weren't you paying attention? I just said I'm not going to kill you, or have you rot away in a cell. Do you know why?"
I shook my head, which was not the easiest thing to do in my position.

"Because you interest me, you are bold and fearless and from what I can gather, skilled at your profession. Tell me, how do you think I managed to track you down?"
I thought for a moment, then it came to me:
"The dragon scale!" I blurted out.
The dragon nodded approvingly.
"I see I can add intelligence to your list of favorable traits. Exactly, I put a spell on the scale, which allows me to track it down, wherever it goes."
I had to admit, I was impressed. Still, there was one thing I had to ask:
"What do you want from me?"
"Let me ask you a question: What's your name, boy?"
"Lorenzo"
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen."
"I see. Tell me, what are your plans for the future, Lorenzo? Where do you see yourself in, say, five years?"

I must confess that up until that moment I had never thought much about the future.
"You have potential", the dragon said. "With proper guidance you could go far. Would you really be satisfied spending the rest of your life as a sneak-thief, having to give away part of your earnings to some old ape, or whoever will be in charge when your boss draws his final breath. That is, if you don't get caught by someone much less merciful than me?"
I was beginning to see what she was hinting at, but I wanted to have my suspicions confirmed.
"Do you want me to work for you?" I said.
In answer to my question, the dragon brought her hands together in an applause.
"Bravo, that's exactly what I want. You see, I have big plans and I need a protege; someone I can mold to my liking. Someone I can rely upon. I think, no, I know that that someone is you."

"Where would I live?" I asked, imaging that she would find me some small apartment in the city somewhere.
"Why, in the palace of course, there's room to spare."
I almost couldn't believe what I was hearing: Me, living in the palace? Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined such a possibility. In my mind, I already pictured myself sleeping between sheets of silk and being waited hand and foot by a staff of servants.
I had already made up my mind, but this sealed the deal; I would be a fool to throw away this golden opportunity. I looked up at the dragon and in that moment, I knew that I was hers, forever.

"I accept", I said.
"I knew you would."
Removing her foot, the dragon pulled me to my feet.
"Come", she said, there's a carriage waiting for us. Oh, and you can keep some of the money, consider them payment in advance."
I thanked her and followed her out of the alley, it was then that something occurred to me.
"Your highness", I began. "If its not to much to ask, may I know your name?"
"Certainly, you'll find out soon enough anyway, might as well learn it now." She smiled, but this time her smile was considerably more friendly.
"I am Argath."

*****

That is how I became acquainted with our illustrious monarch. Perhaps one day I shall regale you with some of the adventures I've had in her service, such as the loss of my eye. Don't expect me to tell you everything though.
For now, however, I'll put down my pen and wish you a good night.















Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Latro In the Mist

I don't think I've written anything about Gene Wolfe before, but he is one of my favorite living authors. Granted, prior to this review the only thing I had read by him was The Book of The New Sun. However, that series was more than enough to cement him as one of my favorites, being, in my opinion, one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century.
The Book of the New Sun made me want to get further acquainted with Wolfe's work, which led to me acquiring the book that is the focus of this post: Latro In the Mist.



Latro In the Mist is actually a compilation of two novels: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, originally published in 1987 and 1989 respectively. There's also a third novel called Soldier of Sidon, which came out in 2006.

So, what's it about? While The Book of the New Sun took place in Earth's extremely distant future, in Latro in the Mist, Wolfe takes the reader back to our planet's past. More specifically to antique Greece. The story is narrated in first-person by its protagonist Latro, a Roman mercenary who sustained a head-injury while fighting for Xerxes at the Battle of Plataea. As a consequence, Latro has lost his short-term memory, leading him to forget everything when he sleeps, forcing him to write down the events of each day in his journal.
The injury has also given Latro the ability to see and communicate with the gods and supernatural beings that populate the landscape, invisible to mortal men. An encounter with the Mother of the Gods, tells Latro that the cure for his condition lies in travelling to a temple dedicated to her, located in the lands south of Riverland (Egypt). With that information, Latro sets out on his journey, but soon finds himself the pawn in the games of men and deities alike.

Everyone who is familiar with Gene Wolfe's work can tell you that his books do not make for light reading, his narratives are peppered with hidden meanings and allusions that even the most attentive reader may not catch upon a first read, not to mention his use of unreliable narrators, who may mislead the reader, intentionally or not. When it comes to Latro In the Mist, a knowledge of the history of ancient Greece, as well as Greek mythology, is also a requirement.
This may make it sound as if Wolfe is one of those authors who loves pointing out how clever they are, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Going by my own experience (limited though it may be), its clear to me that Wolfe respects his readers' intelligence and excepts them to work things out on their own. As Neil Gaiman put it: "He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well."

Latro's story is a complex and intricate one. Wolfe's breadth of knowledge regarding the time-period he has set his tale in is truly impressive and like all the best writers of historical fiction, he brings the past to life excellently.
Character-wise, Latro, is not unexpectedly the most rounded character. He's an engaging protagonistwhose plight makes him easy for the reader to sympathize with. As much as I love The Book of the New Sun, if you asked me who my favorite was between Latro and Severian, I think I'd have to go with the mercenary. He is backed up by a strong supporting cast, of which the precocious slave-girl Io and the necromancer Eurykles are two of the most memorable.

Latro In the Mist is another masterpiece from Wolfe's pen and strengthens my admiration for this great author. For newcomers, its as good a place as any to start.