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December 14, 2017

Unseen Shadows: The Chimera Factor (Review)


Unseen Shadows: The Chimera Factor
Batten Press, 2017
Writer: Richard Clements

The writer of this title, Richard Clements, gives us an unmistakable pointer in respect of the concept he harvests. Mr Clements introduces one of the one of the main characters, Major Stephanie Commisbee, as she solves the riddle of opening a secret passage into a jungle ruin. An ancillary player in the plot notes how their scenario of exploring abandoned temples is similar to the video game Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and then observes how effective the game is for training purposes. Major Commisbee, an ex-thief with the benefit of a Presidential pardon, brushes him off and simultaneously pleads unfamiliarity with the game. “No, Iregi, I’m kinda too busy running a UN strike team.” It sounds like something Lara Croft might say were she a soldier and not an explorer.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is plainly a major influence in this title. The game, which has been through several iterations, involves a quick-witted and adventurous woman exploring ruins, looking for treasure, and dealing with both traps and paranormal threats. In the recent book commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of the game, the creators of the game at Core Designs accredit much of its success to its cross-gender appeal. Unique for video games of the time, here was a woman, rather than a man, who wielded pistols, solved tricky problems, and survived against the odds. Lara Croft is not the fruit from the tree, some damsel-in-distress trophy to be acquired, but instead was (and is) the trouble-making protagonist. The character is a curious feminist figure because, for the traditional male audience, it helped that Lara Croft was enormously busty and athletic, and speaks with an upper-class English accent. The combination shrieked to male players the message of unattainable desire, each game an extended tease by a posh, intangible sex symbol. The character’s long brunette plait became a key indicia of the character. In the comic book adaption by US publisher Top Cow Productions (which ran from 1999 to 2005) it twisted and twirled as Lara Croft fended off perils ranging from jihadis to animated stone monoliths.

Top Cow Productions paired the character on a number of occasions with Sara Pezzini, a police detective who wields the deadly artefact called the Witchblade (the subject of a series called Witchblade which ran from 1995-2015, and which is scheduled for relaunch in December this year). But although the two characters looked remarkably similar (the artist, Top Cow Productions’ founder Marc Silvestri, plainly struggled to differentiate between the two pretty, large-breasted brunettes when he has to draw them together) the personalities of each were very different. This worked, with the cocky and worldly British adventurer calling the shots over the somewhat naive American cop. Top Cow Productions also matched Lara Croft up with an underdressed and angry female Vatican zealot named Magdalena, again, not quite an identical paring.

So, what better menace could there by for Lara Croft than another Lara Croft? Mr Clements plucks many of the elements of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and, aside from our comments below, splices them to make something intriguing and potentially addictive. Both major characters, Major Commisbee and the mercenary Victoria Sullivan, are alpha females, leading a team of devoted fighters. The plot involves other-worldly threats and mystical solutions. The globe-trotting adventure involves defeating a mysterious cabal called the Elemental Sciences Division. Bullets fly non-stop. The only things missing are the well-filled singlet top, the very tight shorts, and the plait. Mr Clements has apparently taken the quite sensible view that female soldiers and spies should be dressed in clothing better suited to the risk of shrapnel or knife wounds. (Indeed, even the latest comic book version of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider published by Dark Horse Comics mirrors the most recent iteration of the video game, each depicting Lara Croft in clothing sensible for an adventurer.)

The plot in Unseen Shadows: The Chimera Factor is a quest for a dangerous and mystical relic called the Chimera. It is capable of destroying cities. Mr Clements chooses to re-write some history in support of the Chimera’s power: the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not caused by atomic weapons, but instead by the deployment of the Chimera. Moscow was next (of itself, a very, very clever concept. This is a strategic solution to Stalin which must in 1945 have percolated within the brain of warmonger General Curtis LeMay, the American Air Force chief who systemically napalmed civilian areas of Tokyo and later strongly advocated the use of nuclear weapons during the Cuban Missile Crisis in confrontation with John F. Kennedy). But the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber carrying the apocalyptic device crashed into Arctic tundra and was lost.

Prior to this, we see a US brigade fighting both Russians and Germans in the bloody siege of Stalingrad (a concept which could carry its own title), endeavouring to obtain the Chimera from a church crypt. When Victoria Sullivan’s team first encounters Stephanie Commisbee’s team in the Arctic, both trying to retrieve the Chimera from the plane wreckage, the interaction is brutal, intimate, and violent. A chase through Beijing involving a helicopter gunship adds to the body count. It is fun, exciting, Hollywood blockbuster drama.

There are only two jarring elements to the story. The first is the use of witchcraft. Entirely acceptable within the Tomb Raider adventures, here it seems unnecessary because of the superabundance of action conveyed by what is in essence a very solid espionage thriller plot. The balance of the plot more than carries the story. The use by Victoria Sullivan, for example, of the severed and mummified hand of a hanged prophetess to magically read the brain of a corpse is a plainly compelling and striking plot device. But it is out of place. Sullivan could have just as easily have been depicted as searching the dead man’s jacket for the requisite clue. Mr Clements did not need to make a fruit salad of the story.

The second problem is that the two characters are very difficult to tell apart. This is not the fault of the artist, nor of the characters’ backstory. It is instead a repeated stumble in characterisation. Both female leads are rough, highly focused players: one is angry and vindictive, the other is ruthless. The dialogue does not sufficiently set them apart. Sometimes within the story it is hard to discern who is saying what.

These are things that can be fixed or addressed in subsequent stories. The core premise is a fruit to be savoured. We ardently hope for more adventures of Sullivan and Commisbee from Mr Clements.

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