Trick or treat, it’s media review time!
Books: Un Lun Dun, Goldenhand, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Red Harvest, The Assistant Murderer
Comics: Hands Off!
Games: Rhythm Heaven Megamix, The Red Strings Club
Here we go!
Un Lun Dun by China Miéville (2007)
After reading Neverwhere last month, I decided to re-read Un Lun Dun, which I first read probably about ten or so years ago, around the time when it first came out. I didn’t remember very much from my first read-through, except for a few scenes in particular near the end, so I thought I’d give it another read.
Un Lun Dun, unlike Neverwhere, is meant to be a kid’s book. The protagonist is Deeba, a fairly young girl (I forget her age, but she’s probably 10-15 years old) who is best friends with Zanna, who is the Chosen One who will save UnLondon from the Smog, which is basically an evil pollution demon that wants to burn everything. Except they go into UnLondon and Zanna gets bopped and a dude named Brokkenbroll shows up with magic unbrellas (broken umbrellas) that can defend people from the Smog, so Zanna and Deeba get sent back to normal London while the adults fix the problem. This works out for a while except then Deeba finds out things might still not be fixed, so she goes back to UnLondon by following instructions on a glove made out of a sheet of paper ripped out of a (slightly inaccurate) book of prophecies and climbs up a bookshelf into UnLondon.
This makes more sense in context, I swear.
Un Lun Dun is very different from Neverwhere. It’s not just a story about a kid, it’s a story that feels like it’s for kids in a lot of ways. There’s ghosts and a man with a pincushion for a head and a guy who’s actually an entire school of fish in a diver suit. The story’s about a huge monstrous, world-threatening evil of the variety that’s much more overt than what was in Neverwhere. The world itself is much more fantastical, too, with phones that use bees, or jungles inside of houses, or spider windows that hide objects inside them. UnLondon is cobbled together from trash and discarded fashions and anything else that nobody else wants anymore–Smog included–and it’s a mishmash of strange people living a very strange life, and it’s one that feels much more prosperous (if peculiar) than the desperate feel London Below had.
The story itself plays a lot with narrative. The whole point is that Deeba is not the Chosen One–she’s the UnChosen One, who takes initiative to save the world because she wants to, and not because she’s destined to or has some great power or anything. And the prophesied path is a multi-step fetch quest that Deeba starts out trying to complete in place of the actual Chosen One, and decides to jump right to the end where she can get the UnGun and fight the Smog.
I think Un Lun Dun is pretty charming. The characters are interesting and likeable, and I appreciate how much Deeba is still a kid–she’s got school and a family and she looks to adults to try and get help, and when that fails, she makes impulsive decisions and goes out on her own–and not all the adult characters are absolute bastards (though, of course, some of them are) who instantly write off what Deeba says. The world is fantastical and strange and colorful and full of nonsense and it works out between the fun parts of the adventure and the really fucked-up parts of it. I had fun reading it, and I think the re-read was well worth it.
Goldenhand by Garth Nix (2016)
Goldenhand is the fifth book in the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix. The first three books are a trilogy that came out around 2000, the fourth book is a prequel which I have not read, and Goldenhand is a sequel of sorts (which I’ll discuss later). For the uninitiated, the Old Kingdom series is a series about making dead things stay dead, and also killing a god or two. The Old Kingdom is a kingdom that’s full of magic and used to be much better before the royal family got turbo murdered, and there’s a bunch of necromancers who are bringing things back to life and ruining things for everyone else, so there’s a special necromancer called the Abhorsen whose job is to use necromancy to make things stay dead instead of bringing things back to life. There’s also the Clayr who are a very large, pretty much all-female family of clairvoyants, which are pretty important later on.
If that sounds disorganized, it’s because it’s really really hard to explain everything in the Old Kingdom series. The Old Kingdom is widely praised for its world-building, and for a good fucking reason. The world-building is exquisite. The Old Kingdom is rich, the characters and organizations and magic and history are interesting and well-crafted, and I wholeheartedly recommend reading the trilogy if you are at all interested in fantasy fiction.
Now, on to Goldenhand. Goldenhand follows some time after the third book, Abhorsen, at the end of which the second main character, Lirael, got her hand bitten off so she didn’t die while fighting god, so her nephew built her a new hand made of gold and magic, thus the name ‘Goldenhand’. Anyways, Goldenhand is about another threat to the Old Kingdom, this time coming from Chlorr, a very powerful necromancer and also very evil and dead person. I didn’t read Clariel so I don’t really know what happened with Chlorr, but considering that it involves sacrificing a bunch of people and stealing their bodies, it’s probably not great. The story follows two main paths: Ferin, one of the aforementioned sacrifices who’s trying to get a message to Lirael, and Lirael, who has to deal with some monsters near the border and also pick up Nicholas Sayre, her designated love interest who gained weird magic powers after being brought back to life. They both make their way to the glacier where the Clayr live, and then figure out a) the new threat, and b) how to save the Old Kingdom again.
I’ll preface this by saying that I enjoyed reading this book. It was an enjoyable read and I think it was worth the time. However, I also really felt like barely anything happened in it. For a full-length novel, it feels like approximately two major steps happened: Everyone got gathered at the glacier at around the 80% mark, then they went to save the world. Which is to say, the plot didn’t feel nearly complex enough for a full-length novel. It really feels like the story could have been condensed to 30% its length and get just as much story across–it really feels like an add-on and not a story of its own.
Which leads to my next point: Goldenhand feels like an epilogue. It feels like the short story that goes up on the author’s website, coming back to tell a story about how all the characters are doing a few years later and how they’ve settled in. It has all the earmarks–all the significant characters from the series show up for an encore, extra loose ends get tied up, the main character goes back to their roots, and the ambiguous love interest becomes an unambiguous love interest.
Speaking of which, Garth Nix has the subtlety of a sledgehammer when writing romance. Lirael and Nick have absolutely no chill about each other for the entire story and Sam and Ferin get thrown together at the speed of light in the last 5% of the book and then she sticks her tongue in his ear apropos of nothing. Like, what? Maybe this is just my incredibly low tolerance for romance in fiction, but I really did not find it well handled at all. Garth Nix really writes best when he focuses on plot and world building, and when the romance ends up getting relegated to practically background information.
I think that if you enjoyed reading the Old Kingdom series, you’ll enjoy reading Goldenhand, but you’ll enjoy it the same way you enjoy reading fanfiction–as bonus content about characters and worlds you enjoy, and not as an actual extension of the main story. Make your judgements based on that.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)
The Postman Always Rings Twice is a book that’s been on my list for a while, just because it’s one of James M. Cain’s better-known works. This is another one of those books that I had no idea what it was about before I started reading.
Anyways, The Postman Always Rings Twice is about how murder can solve some problems, but it causes other problems. It’s about a dude named Frank, a mechanic and a vagrant who happens upon a shitty restaurant by the side of the road owned by a Greek guy named Nick and his wife, Cora. Frank gets the turbo hots for Cora and Cora doesn’t want to be with Nick anymore, so they conspire to murder Nick and run away together. This doesn’t work out, and then it does, and they get away with the murder. And then it turns out that post-murder life still isn’t everything they wanted, because despite them being hot for each other, they have different desires and goals.
Cain’s writing style is rough around the edges, here just as much as it was in Double Indemnity, and it works. Frank’s a rough character, and the language matches. It’s a fairly short story (only around 35k, according to the stats in Calibre) but it makes use of the space–it’s constantly moving from Frank’s schemes to aftermath and trials and affairs and arguments. And while I certainly wouldn’t call Frank or Cora especially likeable characters, their story is compelling, if only to see what could possibly happen next. Because you can see from a million miles away that things won’t go well, but there’s no way to know how it will end without following the story.
Apparently this book got banned back in the day when it got released because of the sex and violence, and to be fair, there is both sex and violence in The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s not nearly as explicit as a lot of things that are being released nowadays, but back then you weren’t allowed to write the word ‘fuck’, either. I mean, adultery was an actual prosecutable offense at the time (although technically it still is in some places), so things have changed since 1934. I could see how it’d be considered sordid enough to get banned at the time, but these days there’s nothing so shocking about it.
Was The Postman Always Rings Twice a good book? Well, I enjoyed reading it, and finished it in one sitting. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Double Indemnity, but that’s more of a narrative focus thing than speaking to the actual quality of the book–Double Indemnity was first and foremost about trying to commit a murder and get away with it, and The Postman Always Rings Twice is about committing a murder, getting away with it, and still getting fucked over anyways. It’s a neat piece of crime fiction, and if you have an hour or two to spare, it’s worth a shot.
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
A while ago, I read The Dain Curse and quite enjoyed it, so I decided to read Red Harvest, its predecessor. I hesitate to say it’s a prequel, since the two books have absolutely nothing to do with each other, except that they’re both about the Continental Op and there’s literally only one reference in The Dain Curse to the fact that Red Harvest even happened. Even the Philip Marlowe books have more continuity than that, but I guess it makes sense. The Continental Op stories were serialized and mostly short stories, so it wouldn’t really be reasonable to expect continuity from them, whereas the Philip Marlowe books were always books.
Anyways, Red Harvest isn’t exactly a mystery, though a detective is, of course, involved. It’s basically about the Continental Op getting called into a town called Personville, known locally as Poisonville, a small town that’s basically owned by one dude who hired in a bunch of organized crime to break up some labor unions and the organized crime’s been there to stay ever since. The story starts out with the Continental Op investigating the murder of the dude who was going to hire him, then systematically tearing apart the entire city and all of the organized crime in it. There’s a couple of mysteries involved, but the main thing is the Continental Op going around and taking out all of the gangs one by one.
I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed Red Harvest. Everything I said about the Continental Op back in The Dain Curse still applies here–he’s a bastard and manipulative asshole, as well as with a bit of a nasty streak, too. He never murders anyone with his own two hands, but he definitely does a lot of stuff that directly leads to people he doesn’t like getting murdered. But as much as he’s not exactly the shining star of morality, he’s still a compelling character, in part because despite his horribleness he is genuinely working to root out the worst of the worst in an environment that’s just as grimy that he is. It helps that a lot of the Continental Op, for all of his bastardness, is a professional–he’s not so much awful as unsentimental, though his underhanded personality shines through often enough (enough that even one of his own agents doesn’t trust that he wouldn’t murder someone).
Red Harvest is a story about murder and backstabbing and, in some ways, making deals with the devil–first with crime to clear out the labor disputes, then with the Continental Op to clear out the gangs. And, not to spoil anything, the Continental Op certainly does the job he’s paid to do.
Unlike The Dain Curse, Red Harvest is a story that starts off strong, and it keeps that up all the way through. There’s no mystery for most of the book, just the Continental Op pitting himself against several groups of people who want him dead, and it works. I’m invested. I definitely think this is one of the better stories of Dashiell Hammett’s, and I’d definitely recommend it for anyone who’s interested in reading The Continental Op.
The Assistant Murderer by Dashiell Hammett (1923-26)
I have no idea when The Assistant Murderer was released. 1923-26 is what it says on the Wikipedia article about Dashiell Hammett’s bibliography, which implies to me that it was serialized (like many of his works) in the Black Mask or some other magazine, but I can’t imagine that The Assistant Murderer would need three years to complete, it not being a very long story as it is.
Moving on, The Assistant Murderer is a mystery with the detective of the week being Alec Rush, an incredibly ugly man–and you will know that he is an incredibly ugly man, because Dashiell Hammett will not pass up a single chance to tell you that he is an incredibly ugly man. Anyways, Alec Rush, incredibly ugly man and private investigator, gets a case to check up on a woman and see if a certain man is tailing her, and if so, why. The story that spirals from there is a string of murders and affairs, tied up with–what else?–large quantities of money.
It’s a pretty short story, but it’s one that’s got a lot going on in it. If you were to take a detective story and tear out all the trappings, all the long descriptions of grimy locations, all of the fancy people, and all those other things you use to dress up the actual mystery, you would get something very similar to The Assistant Murderer–a story with a laser focus on the plot. I suppose I should expect nothing else from a serialized story. There just isn’t time for all the fancy stuff you see in the detective novels, and even Raymond Chandler, the master of writing three thousand words at a time that have literally nothing to do with the plot, could make his stories focused and fast-paced when they were for the magazine. Dashiell Hammett’s writing style has always been quite straightforward, anyways.
Speaking of Chandler, this is the story that made me realize one of the main differences between how Dashiell Hammett approaches the hardboiled genre compared to how Raymond Chandler did. Hammett has a fixation on ugliness and griminess and the other horrible things in the world. His stories are grungy and filled with backstabbing and deceit (and this one is no different). Chandler, on the other hand, has a fixation on beauty despite the griminess and corruption of the city and the people in it. He’s constantly bringing attention to beauty in people and locations and the gentleness of characters that can’t always afford it. The dichotomy is easy to see just in the main characters–Alec Rush is an incredibly ugly man and an unsentimental detective with fairly loose morals while Philip Marlowe is an (apparently) attractive man who cares too much and has too much honor for his job. The grime of Hammett’s style isn’t as present here as it is in Red Harvest, where it’s shown in abundance, but it’s still there.
I liked The Assistant Murderer, though I admittedly found the plot thread a little funky by the end of it–it’s really a bit more complex than a typical story of this length, and a little more complex than it needs to be, but I’m really not going to complain about the complexity of a mystery plot. It’s not so convoluted as to be impossible to follow, and as in many mysteries, all of it is clearly explained before the end. If you’ve got a taste for short fiction, give The Assistant Murderer a shot.
Hands Off! by Kasane Katsumoto (1998-2001)
Hands Off! (or Sono Te wo Dokero in the original Japanese) is a manga that I’ve reread multiple times since I first read it about…eight years ago. It’s definitely not my favorite manga and it’s definitely not what I’d say is necessarily even a very good manga, but it’s one that left a strong impression on me, and has me rereading it every year or so.
Hands Off! is an 8-volume manga series about psychics. The protagonist is Kotarou Oohira, a fifteen year old kid who’s just moved to Tokyo so he can go to a new school and not be harassed by the other students for his feminine looks, and the other two main characters are Tatsuki Oohira, Kotarou’s cousin who seems to hates Kotarou’s guts (but really doesn’t), and Yuuto Urushiyama, a womanizer who gets involved in all this bullshit because he’s curious about all this drama. Of course, these kids have psychic powers because it wouldn’t be much of a manga series about psychics if they weren’t–Tatsuki has the ability to see the past, while Yuuto can see auras, and Kotarou has the inexplicable ability to boost the psychic power of anyone who’s touching him (though he’s unaware of this, and of psychic powers in general). The plot itself is about these kids solving problems with their psychic powers and problems surrounding them and also even more psychics, but also mainly about the relationship between Tatsuki and Kotarou.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to address the fact that, like many manga that take place in and around high schools, there is an absolutely incredible amount of violent crime happening in this tiny neighborhood, usually centering on Kotarou, who gets constantly kidnapped and needs to be rescued by Tatsuki and Yuuto. For a school about high school kids, it’s surprisingly violent, mostly because Tatsuki kicks the shit out of a ton of people (sometimes in self-defense, but not always).
Overall, Hands Off! feels very 90s, if that makes any sense. The art style seems to be more similar to anime and manga from that era, and there’s this weird skirting of queerness while being aggressively straight–the three main characters are relatively attractive boys, one of whom looks extremely feminine and gets bullied because of it, they run into gay characters (usually in a villainous context), and both Yuuto and Kotarou have a steady female love interest and seem to feel incredibly threatened by anything that might undermine their masculinity (while Tatsuki doesn’t really give a shit).
The overall plot of the story is a little muddy (and there’s a lot of things in the story that go unanswered), but I think the reason why I still like it so much is because the usage of psychic powers is consistently clever and the characters are well-rounded. I really love the interactions between the characters and how they try to accomplish their goals and play against each other. The most developed relationship in the story is, of course, that of Kotarou and Tatsuki–the main tension of the story is that they used to be friends when they were younger, then the whole thing about psychic powers drove Tatsuki away, but they still actually care a lot about each other–but the interactions between Yuuto and Kotarou, Kotarou and his girlfriend Mio, and the main three against the antagonist of the week are similarly well-structured. You really can believe that the people who are claimed to be friends are actually friends, instead of being duct taped together by authorial fiat.
Hands Off! is by no means a perfect manga, but I still enjoy it a lot and it’s definitely one of the more memorable ones I’ve read. I definitely don’t think it’s a manga for everyone, but if you like stories about psychics and crime of the not-murder flavor, you’ll probably get something decent out of it.
Rhythm Heaven Megamix (2016)
Rhythm Heaven Megamix is the fourth entry in the Rhythm Heaven series. It’s on the 3DS, and as the name implies, it is a rhythm game, though not quite the same type of rhythm game you’d expect in the line of Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution. Instead of a bunch of boring buttons going up a screen for you to press in time to music, there’s a bunch of short minigames where you have to press buttons in time to the music, sometimes with no visual cues at all. And since this is from the same team that makes Warioware, you’ll will not be surprised to learn that the minigames are mostly pretty silly. You’ll play badminton between two airplanes, you’ll translate alien language, you’ll help a rabbit jump to the moon, you’ll be a library cheer leader to help people study, and many other things.
Rhythm Heaven Megamix is a little different from the previous games in that it’s got a story, which I will now completely disregard because you’re not playing Rhythm Heaven for the story, and Rhythm Heaven Megamix even tells you not to take it too seriously. Besides that, it starts out with a bunch of ‘prequel’ games that are easier versions of the later games. People who are used to the Rhythm Heaven games will probably find them annoying, but coming from someone for whom this was the first Rhythm Heaven game, I thought it was nice to have. If they’re easy, you only have to play them once, anyways (twice, if you’re going for perfect later on).
Like I said earlier, Rhythm Heaven Megamix isn’t really like most rhythm games because it doesn’t want you to be able to press things on a cue like an arrow hitting a line or a circle closing. It’s not a game about timing–it’s a game about actually anticipating rhythm. You’ve got to have a sense of the flow, as the game itself would tell you, and not just press buttons to try and force your way through. The margin of error generally isn’t too unforgiving (and a new feature of this game is that the bottom screen will actually show you how early or late you are, so you can try to adjust accordingly as you play) but make no mistake; despite the low difficulty early in the game, Rhythm Heaven Megamix has an incredibly high skill ceiling, even compared to previous entries in the series. An overwhelming majority people who ever play it will never be able to perfect all the songs and complete all the challenges. Personally, I’ve only managed to complete about two-thirds of the challenges and all but about ten perfect minigames, and that’s about the limit of my skill.
With any game, the important question is: is it fun? And yes, Rhythm Heaven Megamix is extremely fun. The music is good, the games are fun, and you feel really good about your skill when you play the games well. The art is cartoony and cute, the characters are silly, and the game is designed not to get you down–if you can’t get past a certain level after a certain number of tries, the game will let you move on, because it knows that the point is to have fun and not get bogged down with that one challenge you can’t get past at that moment.
It definitely took me a little bit to really get into Rhythm Heaven Megamix–I kind of stopped about halfway through for like six months before finally coming back this month to actually give it a good play through, and this time it really clicked for me. So maybe you’ll have a similar experience if you play it, or you’ll enjoy it right away. Either way, I think that if you like rhythm games, the Rhythm Heaven series is a must-play.
The Red Strings Club (2018)
The Red Strings Club is a game that I picked up because it was cheap on Chrono.gg and looked interesting. It’s sort of a visual novel-ish game featuring a cyberpunk future where implants are common and also there’s a giant evil plot going on, and it’s up to a bartender and his boyfriend to save the world.
The Red Strings Club is best categorized as an information-gathering game. The first half of the game, you play the bartender, Donovan, who is an information broker, and it’s your job to make drinks to help him manipulate the emotions of people relating to this big evil cyberpunk plot while he interviews them. Picking the right combination of drinks and questions will get you information you can use in other conversations and in the second half of the game where you play Brandeis, Donovan’s hacker boyfriend, who uses social engineering to trick a bunch of different people into getting him phone numbers and passwords and the other information he needs to shut down the giant cyberpunk conspiracy.
I enjoyed The Red Strings Club. The writing is good, the art is good, and the characters are good. There’s not a whole lot of gameplay in the traditional sense except for a bit in the beginning where you do some cyber pottery and in Donovan’s parts where you make drinks, but again, it’s a visual novel. Fancy gameplay mechanics aren’t the point, and the actual gameplay–making choices to try and get the right information for your investigation–is well-crafted. Thematically, the story involves questions of changing people to make them, for example, less depressed, more confident, or less violent, and the ethics of such technology existing, and the potential dangers of its misuse. A lot of different views on it are brought up by different characters throughout the story, though it’s ultimately up to the player to come to their own conclusions about the conflict.
One of the interesting things about The Red Strings Club is that in a world that’s so overtly technological, there’s Donovan, who is disabled, physically incapable of having implants, and is unable to leave the club, whether due to supernatural or physical reasons. The world of The Red Strings Club has a touch–and no more than that–of the supernatural. Maybe Donovan really is calling on spirits to help him make drinks and get information out of people–or maybe he just thinks that way. Maybe there’s mystical forces bringing all these people relevant to the cyberpunk conspiracy to the club–or maybe it’s coincidence.
I suppose I ought to mention that The Red Strings Club is casually queer. Donovan and Brandeis are explicitly romantically involved, though that’s not a main focus of the story, and there’s at least one other implied occurrence of same-sex attraction, and there’s one explicitly transgender character–though you find this out through finding their dead name, which is super not great. I’m no authority on queer representation, so I can’t really say anything insightful about how that sort of stuff is handled. There are undoubtedly reviews out there specifically addressing the queerness of The Red Strings Club, which can talk about that in more detail if you’re interested in it. I just bring it up because in this day and age, it’s still notable to have a story that acknowledges that non-straight people exist, and lets them exist without having to make them Bad or Good or whatever other statement.
Should you play The Red Strings Club? Well, the game is small, but all its components are well-crafted and the work shows through. You might even find that you’re willing to play through a second time, just to further explore the conversation choices available–and there really are quite a lot. If you enjoy visual novels and cyberpunk stories and have eight dollars and three or so hours to spare and the above review intrigues you, then give it a shot.