Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd., 1969 (published as part of the Agatha Christie Crime Collection)

Originally published in 1934

On the surface, Samuel Ratchett is an unremarkable American traveller, albeit a paranoid one. When his fears come true in the most extraordinary fashion, his body found savagely stabbed aboard the snowed-in Orient Express, the civilised mask falls away and the dead man is revealed to be a notorious kidnapper. Revenge, it would seem, has finally caught up with him. The case is a tangle of conflicting clues and inexplicable alibis, but the killer has made one crucial mistake: they committed murder aboard the same train as Hercule Poirot.

The thing I like best about Agatha Christie’s books is when she proves her credentials as the Queen of Crime by disassembling all your expectations of how a mystery novel is supposed to go. Christie’s work is so very much of its time, with all the racism and sexism that entails, and yet remains so readable – Murder on the Orient Express is a story that only gets creepier the more you think about it, which is probably why it has become one of her more famous books. Though most of the characters are drawn only in broad strokes, as is Christie’s usual style, the writing is clear, concise and somehow convincing, even when it shouldn’t be. And I am always happy to read about Hercule Poirot being cleverer than other people.

Review – The Raven King

The Raven King (The Raven Cycle No.4) – Maggie Stiefvater

Scholastic Press, 2016

Gansey has spent half his life searching for the legendary king Glendower. Together with his friends, he is closer than he’s ever been to achieving his quest – but another power has already woken in Henrietta, reaching for Adam through the ley line and infecting Ronan’s dreams. Noah’s ghost is disintegrating. Blue’s home is under attack. And Cabeswater is dying. If they want to save it, and each other, they need magic that is stronger than a demon…and to survive long enough to use it.

This is the fourth, final and in my opinion, the best, of Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle. Every character arc is given space and depth, and the newer characters fitted in seamlessly. Laumonier was brilliantly creepy. I found the resolution for Glendower somewhat dissatisfying and was more interested in some plot threads than others, but they were woven together well and the writing is beautiful. The series began with The Raven Boys and continued with The Dream Thieves and Blue Lily, Lily Blue.

Ladies of Legend: Danae, Andromeda and Medusa

The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.greekmythology.com/Myths/Mortals/Danae/danae.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andromeda_(mythology), http://greekmythology.wikia.com/wiki/Andromeda

Trigger warning: references to incest

Danae is the daughter of Acrisius, with either Aganippe (not the horse Aganippe, or the nymph, a different one) or Eurydice (not the Eurydice who married Orpheus, a different one), depending on which version you read, and the granddaughter of Aglaia and King Abas of Argolis. This is important, because Abas and Aglaia had twin sons, Acrisius and Proetus, and when the time came to settle the succession, it was decided that they should take turns at ruling the kingdom. It’s a lovely idea that did not work at all. Proetus seduced his niece (the account is unclear on whether or not the encounter was consensual); outraged, Acrisius chased him out of the kingdom and Proetus took refuge in Lycia, where he married himself a princess and acquired an army to retake the throne. The ensuing war was as much of a standoff as everything else in the twins’ lives to date. They eventually split the kingdom into two, with Acrisius now ruling Argolis.

As Danae is his only child, Acrisius goes to an oracle to ask whether he will ever have male heirs and gets much more of an answer than he bargained for. Not only is he assured that he’ll never have sons, his future grandson is apparently destined to murder him. Acrisius does not respond well to the news. He locks up Danae in a prison of brass to prevent her ever falling pregnant, but does not factor in the epic libido of Zeus, leader of the Greek pantheon, god of lightning and wreaker of general emotional havoc. Zeus manifests in the prison as a shower of gold, has biologically confusing sex with Danae, and she falls pregnant. He promptly vanishes from her life for keeps. She gives birth to a son, naming him Perseus.

According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, it take Acrisius FOUR YEARS to find out Danae has had a baby, and what that says about her isolation is terrifying to consider. He does not believe her story of a divine encounter, suspecting instead that his brother may have reached her somehow – and he is certain that if he wants to live, her son has to die. To perform such an act himself, however, would bring down the wrath of the Furies, goddesses who take a very dim view of familial homicide. So he settles for locking Danae and Perseus in a wooden chest and throwing them into sea to drown, suffocate or starve – whichever happens first. Somehow this does not count as murder?

Only they do not die. The chest floats past the island of Seriphos and is caught by Dictys, a fisherman, who opens the chest and releases its traumatised occupants. He takes them to the court of his brother, King Polydectes, who allows them to live with him.

This offer does not, it should be noted, come from the kindness of his heart. He wants to marry Danae, but she is resolutely uninterested and manages to keep him at bay for years, despite her immensely precarious position. As time passes, Polydectes becomes more forceful – but Perseus has grown up into a strong young man and he is very protective of his mother. Once again, a king looks at Danae’s son and decides to get him out of the way.

Polydectes is at least capable of subtlety. He pretends to give up on courting Danae and announces his intention to marry Princess Hippodameia, daughter of Pelops. As a gift for his new love, he requires each of his friends to give him a horse, but Perseus has nothing of his own to offer. He promises to instead bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa, and Polydectes holds him to his word.

And who exactly is Medusa, that her severed head should be so prized? Once again, it depends on the story you read. There are three Gorgons. Euryale and Stheno are immortal; Medusa is not. In one version they are three sisters, the children of the sea goddess Ceto and sea god Phorcys. Their siblings are the dragon Ladon, the terrifying half-serpent Echidne and three more sisters known as the Graeae – Deino, whose name means ‘dread’, Enyo, meaning ‘horror’ and Pemphredo, meaning ‘alarm’ – who would later become the Gorgons’ guardians. Euryale, Stheno and Medusa were once very beautiful, until Medusa slept with Poseidon (the big name god of the sea, as opposed to all the other ones) in one of his niece Athene’s temples. Athene lost her temper. Poseidon was just fine, but Medusa and her sisters were transformed into monstrous creatures with huge teeth, bronze claws and serpents for hair. For a goddess who supposedly represents justice, Athene certainly lets her temper get the better of her.

Another version has it that Medusa was originally a mortal woman, punished by Athene for the same offence and adopted by the other Gorgons, who come by their snake hair naturally. Medusa retains her beauty but is condemned to loneliness: if any man meets her eyes, he will turn to stone. She is, however, worshipped as the Serpent Goddess by the Amazons of Libya. One story even has her lead them in battle. Which makes me curious, what would happen if she looked at a woman? Could this be a beautiful lesbian love story?

If only. Unfortunately she has been roped into playing the villain for a heteronormative hero quest orchestrated by a creepy king and an angry goddess. Athene holds one hell of a grudge. She and the messenger god Hermes go to advise Perseus on his quest, beginning with a trip to the city of Deicterion to look at a picture of the Gorgons and identify which sister he plans to kill. Next Athene gives him a mirror-bright shield, a helmet that confers invisibility on the wearer (once the property of her other uncle Hades) and a strong bag suitable for containing a severed head. Hermes gives Perseus an adamantine sickle for the actual beheading and a pair of shoes like his own, with wings that will allow him to fly wherever he wishes. Directed to the kingdom of Night, Perseus goes to seek out the Graeae.

The Graeae, or Graiae, are the only ones who know where their sisters live. They also know the location of the Stygian Nymphs, who give Perseus his bag and sandals in an alternate story. The Graeae are grey-haired, sharing between them a single eye and a single tooth, over which they quarrel fiercely. Perseus exploits the conflict by seizing control of both and bargaining them back to their rightful owners in exchange for the betrayal of the Gorgons. The Graeae make the trade. What Perseus does next is up for debate: in one version, he carries his vile behaviour to the limit, throwing the eye and tooth in a lake, but obviously I prefer the story in which he keeps some semblance of decency and leaves the Graeae unharmed.

Perseus flies to the remote sanctuary of the Gorgons, in the land of the Hyperboreans. He finds the sisters asleep, surrounded by the weathered statues of men and animals unlucky enough to meet Medusa’s cursed eyes. Keeping his gaze carefully fixed on Athene’s reflective shield, Perseus picks his way to Medusa and beheads her while she sleeps. In the moment of her death, her long-ago union with Poseidon produces a delayed childbirth – the magical horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor arise full-grown from her corpse. Woken by the disturbance, Stheno and Euryale seek furiously for their sister’s murderer, but Perseus is concealed by the helmet and given unnatural speed by his winged shoes. He escapes with Medusa’s bloody head in his bag.

When he grows weary, he tries to rest in north-western Africa but is thrown back into the sky by the Titan Atlas, who bears the world on his shoulders and was once warned that he would be robbed by a son of Zeus. Perseus retaliates by exposing the head of Medusa. Atlas is turned to a stone mountain range, which frankly, given his occupation, might be doing him a favour.

Perseus flies on across the African continent. Over Ethiopia, he sees a young woman on a rock by the sea, naked apart from incongruously grand jewellery and struggling frantically against the chains that hold her in place. This is Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus of Ethiopia and his queen Cassiopeia. The queen is a very beautiful woman, but not a prudent one. She claimed aloud that she and her daughter were lovelier than the Nereids, who complained of the insult to Poseidon; he reacted by sending a flood to Cepheus’s kingdom, followed by a ravenous sea-monster just to make sure everyone got the point. The Oracle of Ammon – why do people KEEP CONSULTING ORACLES, it only ever makes things worse – told Cepheus that the only way to save his people was to sacrifice his daughter to the monster, so that was what he did.

Her beauty now saves her; an admiring Perseus kills the monster and frees Andromeda from her chains. He plans to marry her and take her home with him. Given that her father just left her to die and she was previously betrothed to her uncle (in another version, to the king Agenor), she has every reason to like this idea. Her parents are less pleased. They consent to a quick wedding, but during the celebrations her thwarted suitor brings armed men to the table.

In Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are all for a change in groom. Perseus fights until the odds are too badly against him, then draws out Medusa’s head as a last resort. Everyone is at once transformed into stone, including Andromeda’s parents. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies takes a more generous view, suggesting Cassiopeia and Cepheus probably supported their daughter’s choice in husband and were exempt from the transfiguration.

Either way, the lovers are quick to leave Ethiopia. Returning to Seriphos, Perseus arrives to find Danae in desperate straits. With Polydectes no longer willing to accept no as an answer, she and her original rescuer Dictys have taken refuge in a temple. Perseus goes straight to the palace to display his promised gift to the king; Polydectes and his entire court are all turned to stone.

Perseus willingly gives up the weapon after that. It’s quite risky to have around, after all. Athene, having flayed Medusa’s corpse and turned the skin into a cloak, inflicts a last indignity on her dead enemy and takes the head for herself, to carry into battle.

Perseus also gives back the helmet and sandals to his divine supporters. He helps Dictys take the throne of Seriphos and then sets sail for his mother’s homeland of Argos, where Acrisius still holds the throne. Andromeda and Danae both accompany him. Suspecting that Perseus and Danae are plotting revenge, Acrisius flees to Larissa. Perseus just wants to forgive past murder attempts and move on, but where gods and oracles are concerned, nothing is so simple. At this time King Teutamides is holding an athletics competition as part of his father’s funeral and Perseus competes; during the discus-throwing, a fateful wind (let’s face it, probably guided by the spiteful gods) turns Perseus’s throw aside and the discus hits his grandfather in the foot. The shock kills Acrisius, fulfilling the prophecy he ruined his life – and the life of his daughter – to avoid.

Oracles suck. Pass it on.

Acrisius is buried in the temple of Athene. Perseus is unwilling to rule in Argos, so offers to trade territories with his great-uncle’s successor, Megapenthes. It’s unconventional, but Megapenthes agrees and Perseus becomes king of Tiryns, with Danae as his queen. They both live to a great age in what appears to have been a happy and faithful marriage. They had a large family of seven sons – Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon and Cynurus, according to Wikipedia, and Perseides, Alcaeus, Perses, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus and Electryon according to greekmythology.wikia.com – and two daughters, Autochthe and Gorgophone. After her death, Andromeda was made into a constellation by the gods, along with her husband and mother.

Interestingly, Gorgophone made a name for herself by breaking tradition and remarrying after her husband Perieres died, instead of committing suicide, as was the tradition of the time. It seems that her mother and grandmother had too much experience with sacrifice to encourage it in her.

I like to think Danae and Andromeda got along very well. The sad thing is, I think they would have understood Medusa too. But they were never given the chance.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

Review – Swordspoint

Swordspoint (Riverside No.1) – Ellen Kushner

Bantam Spectra, 2003

Originally published in 1987

In the city, the business of politics is carried out over chocolate, under fireworks, at dinner parties – but underneath the civilised banter lies a cut-throat reality. The nobility crush their rivals and take revenge through their proxies, the swordsmen, and no swordsman is more sought after than the famous Richard St. Vier. He lives in the squalid district of Riverside with his lover Alec, a fiercely argumentative young scholar, and keeps his distance from the quarrels on the Hill, even as he risks his life for them. Some acts of vengeance, however, go deeper than any sword.

It isn’t easy to write a blurb for this book. Having read the second one in the series first, The Privilege of the Sword, I had a vague idea of how this story would go, but the blurb on the back was so terrible it gave away pretty much the entire plot, so I advise avoiding any summaries for Swordspoint altogether. Richard and Alec are both abrasive, morally dubious characters whose relationship is very confusing even to themselves; in other hands this would have been quite a grim story, but Ellen Kushner has a delightfully dry, witty style and a gorgeous way with words. I found that Swordspoint is particularly suited to reading aloud. This copy also includes three short stories about Richard and Alec, which continue to flesh out the rich setting of the city. I will definitely be reading the third book in this series, The Fall of the Kings.

Snapshot 2016

The Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot has been taking place periodically since 2005, when Ben Peek interviewed 43 people involved in Australian speculative fiction. Over the years the project has expanded enormously, and it’s taking place again! My interview with David McDonald can be read here, where I’ve announced a couple of new projects that I am very excited about. The rest of the interviews can be found at the Snapshot website and they make for wonderfully interesting reading. If ever you wanted to find out what’s going on in Australian spec fic, this is the time!

Return of the Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

I’m watching the original Star Wars movie on the original 1992 video tape, which amazingly still works. The cover art on the VHS tape is – hm, interesting. Luke is a sword-and-sorcery type with his shirt ripped open, raising aloft a blinding white sword while Leia drapes herself in front of him with a split skirt definitely not seen in the movie. Han doesn’t feature at all. Nor does the title A New Hope, it’s just called Star Wars. The movie is prefaced by a hilarious ad for Lost in Space, another science fiction landmark from my childhood that I may end up reviewing someday. And there’s the 20th Century Fox music that I still associate, indelibly, with Star Wars. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The Galactic Republic is long gone, the galaxy now controlled by Emperor Palpatine and his vast armies, but civil war has broken out once again as rebels seek to overthrow him. They score a significant victory when agents of the rebellion manage to steal plans to the Emperor’s most secret, and most powerful, weapon: the Death Star, a military space station with enough destructive force to obliterate an entire planet. The plans are given into the hands of Leia Organa, a Senator and Princess of Alderaan. Her spaceship is boarded by imperial soldiers in a swift and brutal attack led by Darth Vader, the Emperor’s right hand, but she manages to hide the plans inside her droid – R2-D2, at the scene of pretty much every important event in Skywalker family history – and together with a confused, amnesiac C3-PO, R2 escapes the captive spaceship in an escape pod. They land on that most inescapable of planets, Tatooine.

Surrounded by clone troopers – now known as stormtroopers – with the rest of her crew either imprisoned or dead, Leia doesn’t give an inch. “Darth Vader,” she says coldly. “Only you could be so bold.” She claims to be on a diplomatic mission. Vader calls her a traitor and arranges for a false story to be distributed that all aboard the ship were killed, presumably in some sort of freak accident, to prevent Leia’s supporters in the Imperial Senate generating sympathy for the rebellion. When the missing escape pod is noticed, a detachment of stormtroopers are sent down to recover its contents.

R2-D2 and C3-PO have a bilingual confrontation, in beeps on one side and insults on the other – C3-PO won’t followed R2 down what looks like a more difficult way (it’s ALL SAND DUNES, there is no easy way) and is promptly seized by Jawas. To be fair, so is R2. I seriously love Jawas. They’re tiny and a bit dangerous and they have the best language. On a completely unrelated note, the first computer I ever used had a Star Wars screensaver and if you left it unattended too long the Jawas would steal bits from all over your desktop. It was brilliant. I’m feeling the nostalgia today.

Anyway! The kidnapped droids are taken to a moisture farm and offered for sale to Owen Lars, who initially picks a different droid. That one malfunctions. Present for the exchange is Owen’s nephew Luke Skywalker, who takes C3-PO’s advice and suggests they get R2 instead. Luke doesn’t actually want to be there. He wants to be hanging out with his friends instead of cleaning up a pair of talkative droids and sulkily swoops a model spacecraft around while C3-PO chatters, though he laughs when C3-PO gets mixed up and calls him Sir Luke. Could it be any more obvious that this is a fairy tale with spaceships?

While he’s fixing up R2-D2, he accidentally switches on a projection of Leia, looping through the same few seconds of her recording. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she says, over and over again. “You’re my only hope.” Luke is instantly captivated. R2 claims to be the property of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke connects the name to an eccentric hermit known to live around here, called Ben Kenobi. Cunningly, R2 convinces Luke to remove the Jawas’ restraining bolt, and Luke is subsequently distracted by his aunt Beru calling him inside to eat.

It’s a tense meal. First, Luke mentions Obi-Wan and his aunt and uncle exchange very shifty looks. Next, a well-worn argument erupts as Owen tries to convince Luke to stay on at the farm for another year. Luke wants to submit an application to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot and Beru is inclined to let Luke have his way. “He has too much of his father in him,” she points out, when she’s alone with her husband. “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Owen says grimly. Fair enough, considering. Frustrated, Luke walks out into the evening, where the twin suns are setting. He learns that R2 has taken off on a hare-brained quest to find Obi-Wan for himself.

Luke gives chase early the next morning, once it’s light enough, and soon catches up, but is ambushed by Tusken Raiders. He appears to have no self-defence training and is promptly knocked out. Fortunately, Obi-Wan arrives while the Tusken Raiders are, well, raiding Luke’s possessions and scares them off with a predator’s mimicry. He’s unsettled by Luke using his name, a name he has not used in a very long time, and isn’t sure what to make of R2, but takes them and C3-PO (who was damaged in the fight) home with him. Having seen the prequels, it’s doubly sad to see how isolated Obi-Wan has become – also, it’s noticeable how the time-frames don’t quite match up, with Obi-Wan claiming to have gone by the name of Ben since before Luke was born.

Other lies fit better into the narrative. Luke has been told his father was the navigator on a spice freighter, but Obi-Wan tells him that Skywalker Senior was a Jedi Knight who fought in the Clone Wars, the best star-pilot in the galaxy. He leaves out ‘genocidal cyborg Sith Lord’, but hands over Anakin’s old lightsaber. “Not as clumsy or random as a blaster,” Obi-Wan says wistfully as a shimmering green blade bursts from the hilt. “An elegant weapon from a more civilised age.” Luke is rather enchanted. His mood turning darker, Obi-Wan speaks about the persecution of the Jedi and claims that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader, which is only true in a poetical sense. He also tells Luke about the Force, an energy that ‘binds the galaxy together’. How much of my life have I spent quoting bits of this movie?

Obi-Wan watches Leia’s recording. She is aware that he served with her father in the Clone Wars (good on you, Bail Organa, for raising this excellent human being) and asks him to take the Death Star plans to Alderaan now that she’s unable to do so herself. Obi-Wan takes approximately one minute to make up his mind, and tries to recruit Luke for the mission with the promise of teaching him how to use the Force. Luke, though torn, feels a duty to his family and feels helpless against the overwhelming monolith of the Empire. The best he can offer Obi-Wan is a lift to the nearest town.

Meanwhile, the imperial officers aboard the Death Star are arguing over what they should do next. When Vader doesn’t like the direction this dispute takes (a casual dismissal of the Force that really drums home the radical social shift since the very title of Jedi commanded awe throughout the galaxy) he chokes a dissident half to death until Grand Moff Tarkin, the person who is actually in charge around here, calls an end to the ‘bickering’ with elegant distaste. The Emperor has just dissolved the Senate for good – he is that powerful – and is relying on the Death Star to keep the star systems in line. That means they have to find out where the plans went, and fast.

On their way across the desert, Luke and Obi-Wan find the wreck of a Jawa vehicle, its occupants slaughtered – seemingly by Tusken Raiders, but Obi-Wan sees at once that the attack came from stormtroopers on R2-D2’s trail. Horrified, Luke makes a frantic dash for home. It’s too late. The farm is on fire; his aunt and uncle are dead. As he stands there staring at their bodies, it is unnerving how much he looks like Anakin.

With nothing left to lose, Luke recklessly pledges himself to Obi-Wan’s mission and they travel to Mos Eisley spaceport to find a pilot who will take them as far as Alderaan. Stormtroopers are searching the place, but Obi-Wan gets them through with a tidy Jedi mind trick. They end up in a cantina full of disreputable-looking characters, where Obi-Wan gets talking with a very familiar Wookiee. Though it would seem they’re not familiar to each other. Chewbacca is now co-pilot on the Millenium Falcon, working with his friend Han Solo. The cantina has a rigid no-droids policy but is well-populated with thugs; the one who picks a fight with Luke gets his arm sliced off by Obi-Wan (his old go-to attack move, if history serves). Luke is awed.

In quite a rush to get off the planet, Obi-Wan accepts Han’s opportunistic asking price in return for a rapid departure and no questions asked. Han would also like admiration for his reputation as a pilot, but Luke’s being indignant about such obvious fleecing and Obi-Wan hasn’t been impressed by anything in decades. Plus Han has his own problems. He gets cornered by a bounty hunter called Greedo, who has tracked him down on behalf of crime lord Jabba the Hutt after a business transaction gone very sour. This scene got notoriously edited in later editions of the movie, but Han DEFINITELY SHOOTS FIRST. In fact, I don’t see any evidence that Greedo got the chance to shoot at all, only that he really wanted to. The extended editions also include a personal confrontation with Jabba that Han manages to talk his way out of, but the original skips straight to a shoot-out with stormtroopers just as the Falcon is taking off.

Han and Chewbacca are a formidable team, though, even with Luke peppering questions at them in the cockpit. The jump to lightspeed gets them away.

Darth Vader has tried and failed to torture the location of the rebel base out of Leia. Tarkin takes a different tack. “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash,” Leia bites when she’s brought before him. “I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board.” He’s already decided to execute her, but has brought the Death Star into the Alderaan system to test its weaponry on her home planet first. Appalled, she chokes out the location of a base on Dantooine, but Tarkin fires on the planet anyway. It is destroyed instantly before her eyes.

On the Falcon, Obi-Wan has begun Luke’s lightsaber training, trying to teach him to act on instinct, and R2-D2 is beating Chewbacca at a holographic board game. Obi-Wan crumples suddenly as the shockwaves in the Force caused by Alderaan’s destruction hit him hard. He doesn’t know what has happened, only that many people have died. Han jeers the very idea of the Force. The only greater power he believes in is luck. When they arrive at the co-ordinates for Alderaan, however, all that’s left of the planet is a field of debris.

Leia may have been devastated, but she did not give Tarkin what he wanted. The rebel base on Dantooine has been deserted for a long time. Tarkin is ridiculously indignant about this.

A short-range imperial fighter ship attacks the Falcon and Han chases it towards a small moon, hoping to destroy it before it can report their presence. Obi-Wan is the first one to realise that they are not heading towards a moon at all – it is a space station of previously unheard of size, and it sends out a tractor beam that drags the Falcon in towards it no matter what Han does. Once they have the ship captive, stormtroopers board and search it. They’re dealing with a higher level of sneaky here, however. Han conceals everyone in the floor compartments he uses for smuggling and together with Luke, overcomes two stormtroopers to steal their armour. They also manage to take over the communications centre overlooking the hanger bay. Obi-Wan slips off on his own to disable the tractor beam, gently dissuading Luke from following him. “The Force will be with you,” he says before he leaves. “Always.”

Han slouches grumpily in a chair and Chewbacca mutters darkly. R2 is more constructive. Having found Princess Leia in the computer system, the droid pinpoints her precise location and her dire circumstances. Luke is determined to rescue her. He wheedles Han around with promises of a hefty reward and they march off with Chewbacca as a fake prisoner between them, leaving the droids to hide as best they can. The three rescuers manage to claim another control centre on the way to the cell blocks, but the commotion is overheard and Han completely stuffs up subtlety by shooting out communications mid very awkward conversation. Luke gets to Leia, who spots the height discrepancy between him and his armour at once (“aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”). Upon hearing he’s here with Obi-Wan Kenobi, she launches out of the cell at top speed.

She’s not the only who knows Obi-Wan is aboard. Vader feels his presence through the Force. His imperial colleagues are more skeptical about it, insisting that the Jedi ‘religion’ is extinct, and are much more concerned with Leia’s escape. Vader storms off to face Obi-Wan himself.

Another shoot-out takes place in the cell block as stormtroopers corner the escapees, and Leia is amazed by the sheer incompetence of her new allies. “This is some rescue,” she snaps, and leads them down into the garbage chute. They end up in a sort of disgusting swamp. And they can’t get out. Han and Leia start screaming accusations at each other and an unidentified thing drags Luke under the filthy water. I hope he’s up to date on all his vaccinations, because the number of diseases he’s being exposed to is mind-boggling.

Leia and Han scramble to help him, but they soon have bigger problems. The thing releases Luke and disappears, aware of what the sudden clunking means – the garbage disposal is compacting, i.e. the walls are literally closing in around them. Luke shrieks urgent instructions to C3-PO while the others try vainly to brace the walls apart. Just in time, C3-PO gets the message (he’s been busy talking his way past stormtroopers, quite effectively I might add) and turns off the garbage disposal. The elation of unexpected survival doesn’t hold their group in harmony for long; being prickly people, Leia and Han soon fall into argument.

The rescue party head for the Falcon and split up when they are attacked again – Han runs headlong towards a mini-blockade of stormtroopers, loyally followed by Chewbacca, only to turn and hurtle in the opposite direction when it’s clear he’s too badly outnumbered. Luke and Leia, already getting along very well, take a different route. Leia proves handy with a blaster and Luke gets creative with a grappel hook, swinging them across a chasm to safety. She kisses his cheek. It would be a sweeter moment if they knew they were siblings, but it’s a tad awkward with that knowledge.

Obi-Wan, meanwhile, has reached his goal and disabled the tractor beam. On his way back, he meets with Darth Vader, who is triumphantly certain of victory. They battle in the corridor, red lightsaber against blue. The stormtroopers guarding the Falcon see the duel and move away to handle that crisis instead; Luke sees it too, just as Obi-Wan shuts down his lightsaber and allows Vader to strike. His cloak is empty before it hits the ground. Vader pokes it just to be sure. Han and Leia yell at a stunned Luke to get moving and they bolt for freedom.

On board, Luke sits grieving and Leia joins him in silent sympathy. Within the space of a day or two, they have both lost everyone they loved at the whim of the Empire. There’s no time to mourn yet, though, with imperial fighters surging in pursuit. Han and Luke command the Falcon’s gun towers to combat them and Luke shows talent; the Falcon gets away unimpeded. And that’s exactly what Vader wants. He’s put a tracking device aboard the ship. Leia suspects something of the kind. Her pragmatism isn’t what Han wants to hear and he reminds her that he’s not a part of her cause, he’s in this for the money. Her response is a chilly withdrawal. Luke is bewildered by their mutual antagonism, and quietly possessive of his princess when Han speculates idly over his own relationship potential with her.

They land on a moon around the planet Yavin, true location of the rebel base. It is a hive of activity. The leaders greet Leia with relief. As they hoped, the Death Star has a weakness – a small fighter ship, considered to be no threat against the huge space station, can travel through trenches in the exterior armour to a thermal exhaust port. A precisely aimed shot should set off a chain reaction that will destroy the entire station. The rebel pilots are doubtful that such a shot is possible, but Luke is optimistic. “May the Force be with you,” a rebel leader says as the pilots are sent off, proving that not everyone sees the Jedi as extinct.

Han is preparing to leave with his reward. Luke is hurt. He’s jumped headlong in the cause and rejects Han’s offer of crew membership out of hand, pointing out how badly the rebellion needs their help. “May the Force be with you,” Han says, by way of goodbye and apology. Luke goes to complain to Leia, who kisses his cheek again (it’s faster than therapy) and C3-PO bids an anxious farewell to R2 as pilot and droid get ready with the rest of the rebel fighters. As he takes off, Luke hears an echo of Obi-Wan’s voice as ghostly encouragement.

The Death Star arrives in the Yavin system and prepares to fire on the planet. If the rebel fighters fail, everyone they’ve left behind is going to die. It’s a desperate obstacle course just getting past the initial defences and that’s before the imperial fighters head out to do battle directly. Vader leads the counter-attack personally. Everything else may have changed, but he’s still a lethal pilot. The rebel fighters are picked off one by one. Leia listens helplessly from the planet while Tarkin scornfully rejects any notion of an evacuation protocol.

No one has successfully made the shot. It’s Luke’s turn to try. Vader guns straight for him but is sent spinning off into space by a blast from the Falcon as Han changes his mind and comes back to help. I think Chewbacca’s discontent may have had a part in that, also the enormous soft spot Han tries to pretend he doesn’t have. At the last minute, Luke hears that echo of advice from Obi-Wan again and impetuously decides to listen, turning off his targeting computer and relying on the pull of the Force to make that crucial shot. R2 is damaged in the approach. Luke is alone now. It is a matter of seconds before the Death Star fires on the base.

Luke takes his shot. It goes in like a dream. The Death Star explodes into fiery wreckage and Luke lands to wild celebration, hauled into a group hug with Han and Leia. They are seriously adorable as a trio. R2 is taken off for repair, C3-PO worrying all the way, and a ceremony is arranged to honour the two pilots who brought down the Death Star between them. Leia presents Luke and Han with a medal each (and a little smile). It remains one of the inexplicable injustices of the Star Wars universe that Chewie doesn’t get one.

There’s a much bigger war to win. But this is a victory worth celebrating.

Review – Tam Lin

Tam Lin – Pamela Dean

Firebird, 2006

Originally published in 1991

The day she arrives at Blackstock College for her freshman year, Janet is told that her room is haunted, but really she’s more concerned about the roommates that are very much alive. There is enough oddness on campus, from Janet’s enigmatic advisor Melinda Wolfe to the quietly domineering presence of Professor Medeous, to Janet’s melodious but entirely unreliable classmate Nick and his theatrical friends, without bringing ghosts into it. The strangest things, however, do not always announce themselves so obligingly. They creep up on you unawares, or linger at the corner of your eye. And Janet is not entirely willing to look.

This retelling of the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, set in the 1970s in an American university, is immensely readable and given my current blog project, very relevant to my interests. It’s a book infused with literary references, some more obscure than others, and Dean conjures a dreamy sense of mystery throughout. That said, I would have liked a clearer pay-off for all those hints, drawing in a greater number of the intriguing side characters, and I wanted to see more of Thomas Lane, as he spends rather too much of the book being quiet or absent. Janet is excellent. She’s delightfully pragmatic and very stubborn. My Firebird edition also includes the original ballad at the back, which is a lovely touch.