Tag Archive | cat and mouse games

What Is Art?: The Emperor’s Soul, Book Review

After trying Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson and disliking it, I was sure he wasn’t the author for me, despite the fact that many I know enjoy and are fans of his work. Fortunately, I decided to take another chance on Sanderson, remembering that even the authors I do enjoy always have at least a couple of stories that I just don’t like. The Emperor’s Soul was a definite win for me, and Sanderson’s simple way of writing really shines with a shorter story like this that quickly digs into various themes and ideas.

The Emperor’s Soul could easily be either fantasy or sci-fi, as clearly as the world is drawn in some ways, it’s purposefully or necessarily vague in others, and this empire could be set way back in time or far in the future. Either way, the characters and plot would still work. The magic and culture of the world in the book are drawn largely from Asian culture, and I personally thought of China because I lived there for a time and I have a signature chop of my own that I had carved with my Chinese name on it. Sometimes I stamp it on letters, but rarely do I write letters anymore. This story takes these chops, or stamps, to a new level, making them tools of magic that can change everything about an object or person. The magician, or rather, craftsmen, who do this are called forgers. Like art forgers, rarely are they creating something new, rather they are making an alternate version of something that already exists. Not so different from actual art, when considering the painting of a flower could also be called a forgery of an actual flower.

Stamping and forgery aside, the plot of the short novel–it’s less than 200 pages–is a cat and mouse game. Shai is caught in an act of thievery and must use all her skill and wits to complete the task her captors have assigned her and also escape in one hundred days. Gaotana, a government advisor, befriends Shai and also watches her work closely. Both characters know they are trying to manipulate the other person. As a shorter story, this plot was a good choice, as is the limited time, and limited setting of just a few rooms.

The magic in this world is more like a craft or a field of art. It is something that forgers have a gift for, but something they also must study. Shai states that anyone can learn how to forge the stamp, and although this does appear true, it is apparent that one must have an instinct and skill with research in order to be successful. The Heritage Faction that currently rules the empire considers forging an abomination, yet uses it often to preserve the heritage of past cultures, making junky clay pots into Ming vases, etc. Shai is right to wrinkle her nose at this hypocrisy. Is forging an abomination or is it not? The distinct rules of forging make it easy to understand, and although there’s quite a bit of telling involved, it’s not boring, it’s fascinating.

Forging a new soul for a person isn’t done, shouldn’t be done, and can’t really be done, but that is the task that the Heritage Faction has for Shai. With little other choice, she agrees to do it and soon finds herself relishing the nearly impossible task while simultaneously planning her escape. Here is where the true artistry if forging is showcased, for as Shai works, she researches every little detail about this person, much the way a biographer might study someone whose story they would like to tell. In the process, she also forges other things, turning her hovel-like room into something grand, impressing Gaotana, who despite being suspicious of forging, endeavors to learn what he can of it. This kind of forging is contrasted as “good” against another called blood sealing, in which a person’s blood is used to stamp and imprison them or hunt them down with skeleton monsters. The picture is, of course, life versus death.

What is art? That is a central question posed in the book, mostly by Gaotana. Shai already knows the answer because she’s in the business of creating art. Interestingly, Sanderson chose to make her an actual art forger as well, which is the way in which she is first introduced to both Gaotana and the reader. He is impressed by her forged painting, and only impressed with her stamp forging much later on when he has more knowledge about it. The question then becomes, what is an artist? Initially Gaotana thinks that Shai is wasting her talents, that she could be a great painter, then he sees how great a stamp forger she is and surely thinks her talents on that score are also being wasted. Interesting, again, because to his faction stamping is supposed to be an abomination.

Art is thought of, mostly by Gaotana, as something precious, not to be destroyed no matter what. It is something for future generations to benefit from, but he learns from Shai that sometimes it is necessary to destroy even the best art. From Shai’s perspective, it is clear that although she may be a primo painter, she doesn’t consider that her art. Forging the stamps is her art and she is a master at that. This forging of a soul is her best and definitive piece and it becomes so important to her that she risks losing her chance at escape to complete it. Her bond with Gaotana is such that she leaves the blueprints in his hands. Only he will know and marvel at the great piece of art that she’s forged. Marvel he does.

In the real world, the idea of forging or rewriting another’s soul sounds evil. In this world, it can only be done by those who know people well. This is the true artistry of Shai, knowing people. She has a natural talent that on some level just cannot be learned, much like a musical prodigy has a talent for music that studying music can’t quite match. In this story, the soul she must rewrite is someone who is otherwise gone. He in essence has no soul. Subtle connection is made between Shai’s gift at forging and also her faith. She prays to the Unknown God, which struck me as a reference to the Christian God, the Creator of the World. Paul refers to the Greeks’ worship of the Unknown God in Acts, and says, well, let me tell you about him. I’m not sure if that was the intended reference or not, but I liked it. I think that all art and craftsmanship and our desire to create and build things is much due to our Creator. He likes to create things and He made us in His image: We also like to create things, and there’s something fulfilling about working hard with all one’s skills and talents to make a work that truly reflects the beauty, love, and hope that God built into the world. It is satisfying, and is a reflection of the Creator.

The story doesn’t really tell us whether what Shai did in forging a soul was ultimately right or wrong. A wrong way of doing it was addressed, but that wrong way the forger ultimately dismissed. It is also unclear just how enduring this stamp Shai made will be, and if it will stand up to the test of time. In a way, she’s been playing God, but in another way, she’s healed a man. I really like the different ideas, questions, and possibilities in this story. It’s a story that makes one think about things and gives answers that fit into the story world, but leaves the real world implications and answers for the reader to ponder.

Did I mentioned I really like this book? The simple, almost mundane writing was perfect here, it really let the themes and ideas shine for themselves. It was vastly better than the flowery, longwinded, and tedious writing in The Goblin Emperor. Sometimes it’s better to simply be a storyteller instead of a Writer. I will definitely check out more of Sanderson’s books, but if this is the only one that resonates with me, that’s ok.

One last thing: On some level Shai is a thief and a con artist. Although she perhaps only learns how to invoke a better con job throughout this story, she learns from Gaotana that the best way to manipulate a person is with sincerity. Sincerity cannot be faked, or it wouldn’t be sincerity; it is a “stamp” that will stick and takes time to both implement and to master. Is sincerity necessary to make great art? In this story, yes. In the real world, it depends. There’s probably lots of things considered great art out there that the artist just made for money or without much thought. The implication in the story, though, is that a truly great artist doesn’t operate that way. This is why Shai cares little for painting and much for forging. Forging is where she puts all her effort and thought. Manipulating with sincerity. It’s just another way of saying, be yourself, everyone else is already taken.

Thursday, time allowing, I plan to have a review up of the Kdrama Extra-ordinary You, and the week after that something to say about the first three Narnia books. Enjoying the drama Doom at Your Service so far, and I’m trying out an ok Japanese drama called One Page Love. As for summer reading, my list changes by the day. I definitely plan to continue with the Narnia books and also continue with The Bowers Files serial killer series. Beyond that, much depends on whether I delve into my still-have-to-read bookshelves or visit the library frequently. Have a great week, everyone, and happy reading!

Mouse, episodes 7&8: Kdrama review

So we’re at it with Kdrama standard plot devices: Jung Ba Reum (Lee Seung Gi) has amnesia. Understandable with his head injury, but it’s been done so many times in these shows, my eyes are hurting from rolling so much. One year after the injury, he’s forgotten his love, Oh Bong Yi (Park Ju Hyun), and also Officer Go Mu Chi (Lee Hee Jun). Episode 7 I spent a lot of time wondering if Ba Reum was faking or not. Always waiting for that twist or the penny to drop, and the twist did come in the next episode.

Although Detective Go is on leave for awhile due to shooting Dr. Sung, who we think was the psycho-killer, he’s soon back working his skills running the evidence room. Before too l long, he’s back doing full on detective work. Go encounters Ba Reum in almost the same way he first did, by almost running him over with his car. It takes awhile for Ba Reum to get his memory back, but when he does, he goes full on genius, helping the detective connect a couple of different cases from the Headhunter killer’s time. He could be a genius only, but he clearly is now thinking like a psychopathic killer, which is how he’s able to make the correct observations and assumptions. Perhaps he’s a Dexter of sorts, a serial hunter who will now be hunting serial killers?

PD Choi (Kyung Soo Jin) has more of her past revealed. Now in short hair, she is far more reserved than she used to be, not surprising as she probably still feels trauma from aborting Dr. Sung’s baby. She was worried the baby, too, would become a killer, not unrealistic in this show, where every other person appears to be one. It’s also indicated that she herself may be the son of a serial killer, and worked closely with her father helping him abduct people–and probably even worse. With the jam packed events and characters in this show, I nearly forgot there was a second killer operating at the time of the Headhunter murders, and one who had a girl helping him. Not sure if they ever said it outright (really these two episodes need second viewings, but I don’t have time right now), that the PD is the daughter, but she’s there in his room in the hospital after Ba Reum beats him to a pulp.

Yes, let’s back up a second. So, Ba Reum eventually does remember Oh Bong Yi, and she’s living in a shady neighborhood that either is her original neighborhood or a different one where she was raped when she was younger. Not sure. As he’s knocking at her gate, getting no answer, we get to see her inside held captive by an assailant! As if this girl hasn’t gone through enough. On top of that, her original attacker is set to be released from prison, and at the end of episode 8 he goes after her. I mean, seriously, the writers have something against her. If characters could leap out of their stories and accost their authors, Bong Yi would totally do it, and without remorse. Fortunately, with her fighting spirit, Bong Yi is able to fend off the killer, who ends up running away and getting beat up by Ba Reum. This killer is then revealed to be an officer/detective working with Detective Park (Ahn Nat Sang), who was investigating the Headhunter. This guy killed Park’s daughter, not the Headhunter. But then, turns out he really didn’t, but Park’s wife thinks he did and kills him, and then Detective Go takes the fall for her. My head is still spinning.

Back to Ba Reum. He is now clearly marked as “mouse” or the kid in the yellow coat at the beginning who brought the mouse into the snake’s cage. Ba Reum has a couple of encounters with the Headhunter (Han Seo Joon, played by a magnificent Ahn Jae Wook) as he questions him in prison. The first time, Ba Reum beginning to have flashbacks–memories of being this kid and dealing with the mouse. The connection between our, hopefully, hero and the child is uncertain as another twist is thrown in.

I must have missed it in the first couple of episodes, but although it was clear that the Headhunter was some kind of doctor, totally didn’t know he was a neurosurgeon. He always helpfully has a bunch of loyal followers, who, it seems, ferry him in and out of prison on occasion, one of those times being a year ago when both his son, Dr. Sung, and Ba Reum are in the hospital and being operated on for their respective injuries. Turns out when Bong Yi was attempting to suffocate Dr. Sung, so he really would be dead, she inadvertently saw the face of Ba Reum’s fantastic brain surgeon. When she can’t ID anyone on the official roster, Ba Reum has a thought and shows her a pic of Han Seo Joon. Yup. Yup, yup, yup.

Episode 8 ends with Ba Reum confronting the Headhunter in prison, and we can now see very clearly that the mouse Han Seo Joon is holding has had some kind of brain surgery done to it. It seems that the mouse Ba Reum picked up as a child and took to the snake’s cage also had surgery done to it, which is why it was so vicious and killed the snake instead of getting eaten. “Did you put that killer’s brain in my head?” Is what Ba Reum asks. Waiting on episode 9 to see that confirmed, but I have to wonder if Ba Reum is the human equivalent of the mouse from the beginning, what does that mean? For it seems the mouse may have been altered to go after something that would prey on itself. And, we’re back to the Dexter possibility. It’s also interesting that Detective Go, too, wore a yellow jacket as a child.

Riveting episodes yet again, and I’m getting attached to the characters. Really hoping that Detective Go, Bong Yi, and PD Choi all end up happy at the end. As Ba Reum is either a serial killer who now has the brain of a serial killer, a killer who now has the brain of a genius, or a genius who now has the brain of a killer, I’m thinking he doesn’t have a happy future ahead of him. Perhaps, though, with the genius ability, he may be able to satisfactorily help the others. Is the kid in the yellow jacket really Ba Reum, and is he actually the Headhunter’s son, not Dr. Sung? Or is he the child born to the other woman, the one who also took part in the study? How much does the Headhunter know?

As much as I don’t like the amnesia and brain-swapping devices, admittedly, they do make sense in this particular story, which is certainly a horror one. Curious to see how this will all play in to hating God, especially as the Headhunter is clearly bent on playing God, but to what purpose? It can’t be merely to save his son in some form, for he’s done this with the mice before. Psychopathy indeed, but there must be a reason. Perhaps he’s trying to prove his old friend, Dr. Daniel Lee, wrong. Perhaps he’s after a bigger fish…er, snake? Is the snake himself or someone else?

One thing more: My attention is also on Na Chi Kook, Ba Reum’s officer friend who was attacked at the prison and still in a coma. Just think there’s more to be revealed either by him or about him. In fact, both of Ba Reum’s officer friends could be suspect as being the child yet to be revealed, as they are all the same age or around the same age.

Oh, this story makes my head hurt! Until next time.

Kdrama Mouse, episodes 1-4 review

Spoilers ahead.

With one of the most fascinating opening scenes I have ever watched, Mouse starring Lee Seung Gi has me hooked. Murder mysteries are favorite genre of mine, and as a subset, hunt-for-serial-killer stories are too. These kinds of stories have a lot to offer, from smart detectives, to puzzle box plots, to universal themes surrounding life and death, sin and redemption. The downside is that these stories often glorify murders and serial killers, making them appear much more important than they really are. But, it’s like a magic trick, the trick seems awesome until it’s explained, and then often it seems quite dumb. So it can be with the detective figuring out the criminal, once he or she has figured them out, the prowess of the killer automatically shrinks. So it’s a downside that often has an upside in the end.

Like other Kdramas such as Hello Monster and Flower of Evil, Mouse presents a South Korea awash in serial killers and psychopaths. We get what is often a staple in this genre, an intellectual or professor who studies serial killers. In this tale it is Dr. Daniel Lee (Jo Jae Yun), a doctor and researcher who comes back to Korea from overseas. We soon find he’s really not that smart, as it’s revealed his longtime friend is a serial killer who actually killed his sister and pretended it was robbers. Unsurprisingly, the good doctor only makes it a few episodes. The most important thing about Dr. Lee is that he has isolated a psychopath gene and can predict if one’s baby in the womb has it. However, despite its 99% accuracy, the remaining one percent is a big factor, the kid could actually just be a genius. We are shown a couple of mothers who are debating aborting their children due to getting this test done, and of course they decide to let the kids live, because that’s what any good mother should do.

As with Hello Monster and Flower of Evil, Mouse plays heavily with the concept of psychopathy versus genius and the extent to which a true psychopath who is also a murderer can be redeemed in some way. The main killer in the show appears deeply troubled by his sin that he apparently has no control over. He has to go out and kill people and blames God, the Christian God, for this. His problem with God is very emotional, which is interesting on the face of it, and doesn’t seem to fit with an emotionless psychopath. The opening scene with the mouse and the snake is frightening and awesome, and we are led to believe that this little kid who puts the mouse into the snake’s cage is the killer the detectives will be hunting for.

The writing in this drama will either turn out to be amazing or a let down. It all depends how events and characters play themselves out. These beginning episodes are a knot of stories, characters and plots that will be unwound over time. Misdirection is used heavily. Our main hero is Detective Go Mu Chi (Lee Hee Jun), who is immediately likable and also infuriating. He’s his own best friend and enemy. We are introduced to the detective as a child, where his family comes up against the murderous father of our current serial killer and gets slaughtered and/or permanently maimed. As each family member protects the youngest, Mu Chi is the one who survives physically unscathed, but certainly not otherwise. He is the typical detective, bad past and and suffering from alcoholism, brash and brilliant, and not one to follow the rules. He’s the kind of person who goes around promising the victims’ families that he will someday kill the murderer with his own two hands, because official justice is too slow, if it comes at all.

These first few episodes the audience has been mainly figuring out what’s going and trying to figure out what will happen next, and especially how the star, Lee Seung Gi will fit in into all of this. Lee’s character is Jung Ba Reum, and he’s a neighborhood beat policemen with a heart of gold, but a person who also seems a bit slow on the uptake, certainly not as smart as Detective Go. That’s what we’re led to believe, anyway. We are presented with two babies who have the psychopath gene who are now grown up men in their twenties. It is implied that one of them is the serial killer and true psychopath, and one of them is the one percent, the genius. Dr. Sung Yo Han (Kwon Hwa Woon) is the son of the original serial killer from 25 years ago and he fits the psychopath bill almost entirely, showing little to no emotion. We are actually shown him killing people, but again, it’s a bit muddled with misdirection. The other child surely must be Jung Ba Reum, and he must be something more, because the heart-of-gold thing is just too difficult to believe in a series such as this. At the end of episode 4, we are shown that Ba Reum may actually be the serial killer or another killer. He is holding a child hostage and we’ve already learned the killer is trying to manipulate Detective Go using same child.

Mouse, the title comes from the opening scene with the snake and the mouse but also from the genre. Serial killer hunts are often described as “cat and mouse games,” usually with the serial killer as the cat and the detective as the mouse or vice versa. This story will clearly be a bit different as it is the mouse that is ultimately going to be the hunter, and it’s implied that the snake or cat won’t have a chance in the end. The mouse is likely only one person: The child with the genius gene. My theory is that it is Jung Be Reum, and although he will first seem like either the or a serial killer, his real goal is to entrap the real killer. Even with all the brutal killings, his genius will probably, even if he saves the populace in the end, come across as anathema, simply because he could so easily use his genius for evil. That’s my take on the story so far. Hoping Detective Go really shows his smarts and turns out to be the true hero of the story, but we’ll see. He could very well be the mouse, too, an ordinary human triumphing over the too-brilliant psychopaths. There are also several other young men who could all be the killer or killers. Again, the misdirection is heavy, but the specifics of it will only become clear after more episodes come out. More reviews to come on this fascinating show.