PSF6 Review: The Grim Malkin by Vincent Michael Simbulan

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On November - 24 - 2011

This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco.

The story opens with a cliché— literally— illuminated by multiple flashes of light, in quick succession. And in succession, the story makes use of cliché articulation like reduced to rubble, yawning chasm, one fluid motion, clenched teeth, struggled to catch his breath, dangling in midair and so on. Now in my head there’s a bell that clangs for each cliché phrase that I read so that can be a distracting turn-off from the reading. Seriously, imagine “TENG!TENG!TOINK!” going off like a fire alarm in your head.

I’ve got an odd sort of relationship with medieval fantasy stories (read as both sword and sorcery and epic fantasy). It’s sort of comfort food, and in a strange way, it’s one of the genres where I tend to be more forgiving of an overabundance of common genre tropes. In fact, sometimes I find myself resisting deviations from the “traditional”–I never got into “A Game of Thrones”, for instance, and while I’ve heard good things about the “The First Law” books, the fact that they’re viewed as somehow genre-subversive makes me wary.

— I understand about these types of comfort food stories and sometimes it’s like a no-brainer-break in my own speculative reading. Like romance novels hahaha. And you haven’t read “Game of Thrones?” Dude, you’ve got time to make a change, just relax, take it easy hee-hee-hee…

[Pao: I read the first three books. I just sort of lost interest with each succeeding one…]

So, while I do agree that some ubiquitous turns of phrase were used, I’m not sure about whether or not that was a conscious choice to surround a traditionalist genre reader with the familiar, a shorthand way of making the reader feel that he/she knows the setting and the characters, although little is actually revealed. The problem with this strategy, if it was in fact adopted, is that you’re targeting a very narrow segment of readers, I think. After all, those who like the comfortable and traditional aren’t likely to shell out money on a non-themed short story anthology with a lot of first time authors.

Pshaw. That’s the thing about “genre” because it’s “the bastard child of expectation”. When a story makes use of cliché, then I kind of expect that it would make use of stereotypes. So here come the characters of Ivar the chatty softie sorcerer who has more magic and spine than he shows. Probably has a thing for his prickly partner that might be affection, might be unresolved sexual tension.

Mara actually didn’t strike me as prickly. She seemed to be the straight man to Ivar’s eccentricities. And one of these days I’d like to read a story where the characters retain the sexual tension, even after it’s been “resolved”, but I digress.

Mara as the “straight man” haha, see? And sexual tension retained even when resolved is a good one. And Mara’s prickly because she’s the secretive badass with a blade who has orphan/family/genealogy issues. And both have good hearts and really want to do good yadayada. What’s my point? It’s all just like the usual Sword&Sorcery characters I’ve read in the past 12 or so years.

I agree that the characters are very familiar, and again I ordinarily wouldn’t mind. Characters can hew close to an archetype, but still seem real. The problem here was that I didn’t get that feeling of depth from Ivar and Mara. Part of that has to do with the dialogue. While the banter has its moments, there are also times when it seems forced, as if the characters are running through a conversation solely for the benefit of their unseen audience.

—- Yeah, is like a play you’ve already seen acted out being acted out. Almost cartoonish.

The worst character for me, however, was the Malkin. Clichés in description/exposition I can usually ignore, but when it comes to dialogue…

—- Hahaha, the Malkin was like Chinese dubbed in English action flicks. So, onto the trope: it’s a quest story. And so, again, what’s so different about this one? Because I don’t see anything that would distinguish it from the others.

I actually don’t think that the aim of the story was to stand out from the crowd as much as it was to fit seamlessly into that tradition of tales—

Then this becomes the token s&s story in an anthology—

The execution, however, was off for me. Aside from the issues I already mentioned, there was some rough patches with the prose, and the flow of the climactic battle was thrown askew by quite a few unnecessary line breaks (which kept making me think that we were going to undergo a scene change).

Saw that too.

And really, why do S&S stories often make use of female characters that seem to deny their womanhood and resort to the phallic sword so as to be empowered? That whole construct of complying with the framework of what is patriarchal S&S reality so as to have equality?

I’m curious then – what weapon would you recommend? Killing being traditionally a “male” endeavor, most weapons are pretty phallic, and I don’t think you’re advocating a return to the token-female-as-cleric-or-elf…

—-Hahahaha, what I meant was that I understand that the female characters making use of the phallic weapons is an act of subversion BUT that’s been done so long because the framework hasn’t been changed. And that’s the question: what can female characters do to assert power without resorting to that? Unless we want the women to go all Venus Five…

On the Mr. Brightside, there are several things that made this story memorable. The first one is Ivar’s famous “I don’t pay them. I woo them, with coin.” Man that’s going to be a classic among whoremongers hahahahaha! And imagine a picture of Care Bear Vincent Simbulan with a pop-up saying that hahahahaha!

Yeah, I loved that line. That’s the kind of banter that works, and deepens character to boot.

The second one is found on page 36, the dialogue line “This way; the vault should be just beyond the next turn.” It was Vonnegut who said that the semicolon only shows that you went to college (and it’s funny how people just remember that part instead of the semicolon being transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing). I say that a semicolon used in a dialogue line shows that the person is a too-conscious writer who happens to be an editor/teacher haha. Seriously, that is the Author leaking into the Text/Characater.

And finally, this story is what I would call a kernel: it’s a prototype for a novel. This should be a novel because the characters, scenes, back-stories and other elements weren’t  or could not be fleshed out in the short fiction form. Imagine a novel like this written by a Filipino on the shelves of our bookstores. The young adults would love it. Possible!

Definitely. We need more novels!

Man I feel guilty doing this to Vinny’s story because he’s just really so nice hahaha… (Vinny, I luuuurv you *Hug me again next time you see me?)

What I also appreciate is that Vin Simbulan can carry out action scenes (though we’ve already resolved that it could be sketchy). Only two people so far in Phil Spec Fic can consistently pull this off— Joey Nacino and Alex Osias i.e. the flag-bearers of “Spec Dick Lit”. Dominique Cimafranca tries but kinda fails like in his story for PGS Crime Issue.

As I said, I had issues with that final action scene – it was almost like there were commercial breaks in the middle of the action. But yeah, there aren’t enough fight scenes in our short fiction, since they tend to take up a lot of space, and it’s hard (though possible) to get those scenes to multitask. With concise wording seen as such a cardinal virtue, many fight scenes get relegated off camera.

One Response to “PSF6 Review: The Grim Malkin by Vincent Michael Simbulan”

  1. [...] PSF6 Review: The Grim Malkin by Vincent Michael Simbulan - This post is a part of our story-by-story review of Philippine Speculative Fiction volume 6. You can see the introductory post, and our disclaimers here. Bold font is Mia Tijam, everything else is Paolo Chikiamco. [...]

Leave a Reply



About Me

Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.