When a plasma storm hits the field behind Bouring Middle School, two things happen. The first: a mysterious kid soon known as Mighty Mike appears, imbued with amazing superpowers and the desire to perform heroic deeds with them, despite his amnesia and unfamiliarity with everyday customs. The second: Kyle Camden, local prankster, is gifted with his own set of abilities: strength, flight, and super-intelligence. Convinced that Mike’s an alien, Kyle tries to expose and discredit the new superhero with the aid of gadgets and trickery, only to meet defeat at every turn. Can the so-called Azure Avenger take down Mighty Mike? And hey, who’s the hero and who’s the villain here? Kyle, the hero of his own story, is becoming a villain in the eyes of the world, and it’s anyone’s guess what’ll happen next. This is the sort of comic book story that can only be told if you’re familiar enough with the tropes to invert and subvert them; luckily, Lyga’s clearly tapped into the right mindset. It’s a clever, twisted, thoughtful tale of ends justifying the means, and good versus evil. I’ll be interested to see where Lyga takes this in future installments, and how the relationship between hero and villain changes for the characters involved.
Archive for category Superheroes
The superhuman revolution has begun. With the disruption of the system that was secretly brainwashing the extrahumans of Corp-Co and turning them into obedient superheroes, the superhumans who once protected the Americas of the future have turned to terrorizing it. Only a mere handful stand ready to defend the innocent and rein in their rebellious brethren. Chief among those valiant defenders are Joan “Jet” Greene and Callie “Iridium” Bradford, once best friends and now bitter enemies, separated by past events and grave philosophical differences. Working with Jet are the few Corp superheroes who still believe in justice and order. Allied with Iridium are a pack of infamous villains … including her own father, a hero turned villain. Maybe a dozen against hundreds, while the cities burn and the people fear for their lives. Worst of all, the sociopathic Doctor Hypnotic is on the loose, ready to turn his mind control abilities loose on an ill-prepared world.
Meanwhile, a generation ago, the fabled heroes of Team Alpha come to prominence, and then one by one suffer tragic fates, their lives and loves and losses setting the tone for the modern day. The parents and mentors of the current generation, their experiences play no small part in the events of today.
Picking up where Black and White left off, Shades of Gray expertly weaves together the threads of past and present to create a generational saga of superheroes and villains, and the all-too-human emotions which rule them. It’s all here: the rise and fall of Team Alpha, the tragic moments which created the stalwart hero Jet and the unyielding villain Iridium, the secret origins of the movers and shakers of an extrahuman world. Complex and intricately-plotted, filled with quiet moments of characterization and loud moments of superhuman battles, this is definitely one of the better attempts to translate the four color action of the comic books into prose form. It’s mature and thoughtful, without sacrificing excitement and ambition.
Kessler and Kittredge make for a hell of a team, their styles meshing flawlessly as they put together this fully-realized futuristic society with its multitude of conflicts both personal and public. The only discordant note would be a series of vignettes inexplicably told in the present tense, featuring characters whose plotline doesn’t quite synch up with the rest of the book until the very end. The tense change, at odds with the style used for the vast majority of the story, is somewhat jarring.
There’s both a real sense of completion at the end of this book, and the potential for continuation; if this is all the two plan to write in this universe, it’s about as solid a story as you can get, but there’s plenty of room to expand on what we’ve already seen. I certainly wouldn’t mind further entries, perhaps focusing on other characters, other times, or other situations. Shades of Gray, when taken together with Black and White, is pretty much an ideal comic book story, and would translate perfectly back into the medium which inspired it. This book gets five capes out of five.
The secret war between the Zodiac troops of Shadow and Light continues unabated, with Las Vegas as both battlefield and prize. As always, stuck right in the middle is Joanna Archer, whose uniquely mixed heritage casts her as a prophesied agent of change and destiny. Transformed into the exact likeness of her murdered socialite sister Olivia, she’s living under the noses of her greatest enemies, one step away from discovery at all times.
In City of Souls, Joanna discovers the existence of Midheaven, a legendary realm that’s both refuge and prison for those desperate enough to seek it out, where powers and abilities are bartered at the poker table, and where no secret stays safe for long. Every visit costs her more of her soul, but if Joanna wants to save an innocent life, she must risk it all. Unfortunately, there’s far more at stake than she realizes, and the dangers of Midheaven are greater than she expected. To achieve her goals, she’ll have to sacrifice everything.
In Cheat the Grave, Joanna is down and out in Las Vegas. Her powers are gone, expended in her attempt to right a grievous wrong. Her lover, the Light warrior known as Hunter, has been revealed as a traitor and exiled to Midheaven. Her own troop has disowned and expelled her. Sadly, even as a mortal, even masquerading as her beautiful, rich, popular sister Olivia, Joanna can’t catch a break.
The psychopathic Mackie has escaped from Midheaven, determined to kill her and anyone who gets in his way. As the body count increases, with no help coming from her former friends, Joanna reluctantly joins a band of rogue agents, those who claim allegiance to neither Shadow nor Light. Powerless and unsure how far she can trust her new allies, Joanna will need all of the creativity, bravery, and luck she can muster, especially since both Shadow and Light want her dead now. But when everything comes to a climax, she’ll make a bizarre discovery that could change her life forever… if she survives.
The first trilogy in the Signs of the Zodiac series was focused on setting up the general mythology of the world, with its superhuman heroes and villains fighting one another for secret control of Las Vegas. However, with these, the fourth and fifth books, there’s a distinct change in tone and trappings. The addition of the hidden realm of Midheaven and its manipulative mistress Solange, along with its population of outcasts and renegades, gave the world another layer of weird appeal. The removal of Joanna’s powers and her subsequent journey of self-discovery has helped the series’ protagonist to grow and evolve, even as she tries to figure out just what her role in the grand scheme of things really is. The introduction of the so-called Grays, rogue superhumans fighting for survival against all comers, provides tangible proof that this really isn’t a story of absolutes. What seemed to be black and white in the beginning has been revealed as something much more complex and ambitious.
Only time will tell if these changes will help or hinder the overall progression of the story. It’s certainly an interesting ride thus far, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where Vicki Pettersson plans to go. With City of Souls, she proved willing to upset the status quo, and in Cheat the Grave, she really unloads some major surprises and plot twists/developments. If just for the sheer unpredictability of it all, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
FBI profiler Jace Valchek has spent her life learning how the criminally insane think, to the point where she’s an expert. And because of that experience, she’s just been abruptly reassigned to work with the NSA. Just … not the NSA she was expecting. She’s been sent into another world, a parallel dimension where things took a strange turn in the 13th Century. In this new world, vampires, werewolves and golems constitute the vast majority of the populace; normal humans make a mere one percent. The supernaturals don’t succumb to mental illness, only the humans, and there’s a serial killer on the loose. If Jace ever wants to see her home again, she’ll have to stop this madman from pursuing his bloody work.
Now she has a vampire for a boss, a werewolf for a doctor and therapist, and a golem for a partner. She’s an extreme minority in a world that’s strangely familiar and utterly alien, and she’s tracking a killer across the world. But every body is another piece in a terrifying puzzle, and what it suggests could be disastrous if left unchecked. Of course, even if Jace can save the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean her job here is done. Not if, for instance, her primary target escapes….
That’s Dying Bites, the first of the Bloodhound Files. In Death Blows, we see how poor Jace is coming to terms with her extended stay in a world where she’s an oddity and an outsider. She’s still on the hunt for Aristotle Stoker, leader of the Free Human Resistance, who’s eluded her for over three months and counting. In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to be done; thanks to Stoker, supernaturals are now capable of going insane, and they keep coming unhinged.
This new case is weird even for Jace’s line of work. It all starts with a murdered vampire wearing a Flash outfit. (Barry Allen, the Flash who came to prominence in the ’60s, for those playing at home.) Jace quickly discovers the impossibility of this: comic books have been outlawed since the ’50s, ever since a certain guy, name of Wertham, used totemic magic to become incredibly powerful, and extremely dangerous. His reign of terror ended when the government sponsored a team of “superheroes” known as the Bravo Brigade to stop him. They won, and disbanded, the individual members fading back into obscurity and their personal lives.
Only now someone is killing the former members of the Bravo Brigade and stealing their various artifacts, including a sword which can supposedly cut through time, and a gem which can manipulate energy. Jace and her partner, the golem Charlie Aleph, have to stop whoever’s behind this new spate of killings before they can pick up where Wertham left off. Good luck. She’ll need it.
This is an astonishingly intriguing, highly captivating series. The setting is amazingly well thought out; every question I thought to ask about how some aspect of it works, Barant’s anticipated and answers in the narrative as Jace encounters each new discrepancy between her “real” world and the one she’s stuck in. The idea of a world where supernaturals make up the extreme majority and have had to adjust to their new status on top, while humans are practically an endangered species is certainly one with a lot of potential, and Barant’s milking it for all it’s worth. Both books thus far start off as murder mysteries, but there’s so much more going on, including Cthuluesque monstrosities, comic book cults, golem bounty hunters, vampire superheroes, werewolf gangs and perky undead teenagers.
If anything, Death Blows is even more outrageously inventive than its predecessor. It’s absolutely steeped in comic book lore, invoking the works of Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and more. From the Doom Patrol to Superman, Crisis on Infinite Earths to Animal Man, The Flash to the X-Men, clues are gleamed and parallels drawn, all pulled together by the vampiric literary counterpart of a comic book writer you might not expect. To top that all off, an episode of Seinfeld plays a small but important part. I can honestly sit here and say I’ve never seen a plot that plays out quite like this, and it’s both weird and awesome.
So why should you read this series? Because it’s urban fantasy, where the main character is an FBI profiler armed with a gun and an attitude, in a world where vampires and werewolves are the majority, whose partner is a golem powered by the spirit of a T-Rex, and who investigates serial killings involving Elder Gods and contraband comic book cults, all while hunting the immortal shaman who can send her home. And it’s goooood.
In the city of Bigtime, New York, superheroes and ubervillains are a common phenomenon, sightings of them almost routine. With costumed stalwarts such as the Fearless Five, Johnny Angel, Swifte, or even Granny Cane prowling the streets to keep them safe from all sorts of dangers, it seems like you can’t walk a block without tripping over one four-color character or another. Bella Bulluci knows this all too well; her brother is the current Johnny Angel, motorcycle-riding champion of justice, and thanks to his recent marriage to Fiona “Fiera” Fine, pyrokinetic member of the Fearless Five, Bella’s been tripping over superheroes left and right. Literally. Bella’s got her own superhuman power, an uncontrollable ability to manipulate probability for better or worse, and it’s been making her life miserable for as long as she can remember, with things breaking, burning up, or exploding at the most inopportune times. Bella wants as little to do with the superheroic life as possible, preferring to focus on her career as a fashion designer and occasional would-be artist. But what she wants is not what she gets, when the museum gala she’s planning runs into a few snags. Before she can blink, she has the teleporting playboy of Bigtime, Debonair, wooing her, and the vicious ubervillain known as The Hangman threatening her, with a priceless gem up for grabs.
Now poor Bella is right smack in the middle of the life she never wanted, struggling with a fast-growing attraction for the enigmatic Debonair, who’s definitely not all he seems to be. He’s got the hots for her, but what bizarre secrets is he hiding? And how can Bella ever bring herself to trust a superhero, when that lifestyle got her father killed and has brought her nothing but misery? Who is The Hangman, and what do he and his partner Prism want with the fabled Blue Sapphire? Can Bella overcome a lifetime of antipathy for superheroes, and her own uncontrollable powers, to help save Bigtime from possible destruction? Even with the help of the Fearless Five and Bigtime’s resident explosives expert, Bella’s going to be in for the adventure of a lifetime . . . and quite possibly a love affair like none she ever imagined. Will Debonair stop stealing paintings long enough to steal her heart?
Jinx is the third in Jennifer Estep’s surprisingly entertaining series about Bigtime, a city where comic book action goes hand-in-hand with romance and adventure. While the overall tone is somewhat light-hearted, it’s quite clear that Estep takes her comic book conventions quite seriously, borrowing all of the great tropes to flesh out her setting. From the prolific use of double initials for the main characters (Bella Bulluci, Devlin Dash, Sam Sloane) to the gizmos, gadgets and secret hideouts, Estep invokes old-school superhero comics, all the while avoiding any direct parallels to the big-name superheroes — no Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman analogues to be found here. Speaking as a comic book fan, I could very easily see this setting work as a comic series. It may come off as a little hokey, even satirical, with characters such as Halitosis Hal, Cap’n Freebeard and his Saucy Wenches, or Granny Cane roaming the streets, but it’s fun and charming in its earnesty, and it holds together at its core. What more can you ask for a setting that juggles the double requirements of superhero comic books and romance happily-ever-afters?
The characters themselves are sympathetic and suitably complex. Bella’s a flawed heroine with some real issues to work out, but we get to see her change, grow, and work past or through them in the course of the story, even if it’s much like throwing someone in the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim. What’s important is that her character is honest, and we can feel the pain and emotional struggles she deals with, from the loss of her father to her hatred of the superhero life to her hate/fear/uneasy acceptance of her power, to the conflicting feelings she experiences whenever Debonair is around. Debonair himself is a mixed bag of confidence and insecurity, charm and eagerness, style and image, and as we learn, he’s definitely got a lot going on below the surface. The chemistry these two exude when together is almost tangible, and Estep’s really given us a couple worth rooting for. This being a romance, and one with a comic edge to it at that, it’s pretty obvious what’s coming a lot of the time, especially where the ending is concerned. Luckily, even though some things are telegraphed from fairly early on, there are a few surprises that will likely catch even an experienced reader off guard.
I’ve loved this series so far, and have grown quite fond of the setting and the characters. Jinx is quite enjoyable, a worthy installment to the Bigtime Books. Estep demonstrates an admirable adeptness at blending genres, respecting the demands of superhero comics and romances without missing a beat, all the while maintaining a sense of humor. I hope the next book isn’t too far behind.
Who is Captain Freedom? From his humble beginnings as an impressionable sidekick named Liberty Bill, to his glory days as savior of the world, to his forced retirement and subsequent adventures, this tell-all book, recounted in his own words, peels off the mask to provide an intimate look at one of the world’s most popular (and merchandisable) heroes. We learn all of his dirty secrets, from just how he first became a sidekick, to how he earned that role as top-billed hero in his own right, to how he saved the world multiple times, and how it all came crashing down around him. From adopting a sidekick to finding his father, from the dreadful cat-tossing incident to his foray into politics, no subject is too personal, or too embarrassing. Captain Freedom may be one of the world’s greatest (and commercialized) superheroes, but under the costume, he’s only human (half-alien) and vulnerable like the rest of us. This is his story, and you’ll never look at superheroes the same way again.
Robillard, best known for his humorous contributions to sites such as McSweeneys and Cracked, turns his sights onto the post-modern superhero in his first novel, and the final product is something akin to an updated version of Robert Mayer’s SuperFolks. The heroes and villains of this world are far more interested in commercial deals and licensing packages than one usually expects of such people, and there’s a fair amount of bureaucracy involved in the whole thing. From academies where would-be heroes and villains are trained, to the tests which determine one’s future in the business, to the strange influence the comic book companies have upon the characters they portray, to the desperate way both heroes and villains go looking for archenemies, this is a world where fame and fortune take precedence over sacrifice and responsibility.
There’s an inherently quirky, goofy, surreal charm to the world inhabited by Captain Freedom and his friends and enemies. It’s irreverent and silly, made all the more so with the knowledge that these people, however exaggerated, are acting just like real people with powers would, looking to cash out, looking for fame, looking for that perfect nemesis to complete their lives. On the flipside, it’s hard to take the story that seriously. Often, it seems like there’s very little beneath the surface, as though Robillard’s going for the humor and provoking our laughs by pointing at the hero’s flaws and foibles. I get the feeling that if logic was applied to the setting, it would collapse under the weight of its own inherent absurdity. So one has to tread lightly and accept that this is a work of humor and satire first and foremost, a pisstake on the superhero genre as a whole. Perhaps that’s one of those obvious conclusions, but still, it’s worth pointing out. Captain Freedom is a heck of an entertaining read, and those looking for a more profound tale will do better to keep moving. This spandex-wearing crusader for justice is a flawed, neurotic individual one step away from a VH1 reality show and desperate to avoid that fate at all costs . . . which ultimately makes him just like every other celebrity, only with the ability to punch comets.
I liked Captain Freedom, but found the absurdist humor and its blatant mugging for laughs to fall short of my own laugh reflex most of the time. It entertained, even amused, but didn’t quite stir me to anything more profound, so take from that what you will.
Once they were the best of friends. Now they’re implacable enemies. Joannie “Jet” Greene is a certified hero who uses her powers over shadow and darkness to protect New Chicago. Callie “Iridium” Bradford has used her powers over light to control the underworld of Wreck City, one of New Chicago’s nastiest sectors. They know each other far too well, and for five years, they’ve been at odds. However, all of their previous encounters were just warm-ups compared to what’s about to happen.
Told in alternating chapters, the narrative bouncing between the past and present, the intertwined stories of Jet and Iridium unfold. Their days at the Academy are revealed, exploring how their friendship was forged and broken, detailing the tragic and traumatic moments that turned one woman into a hero, the other into a villain. Meanwhile, in the present, they pursue individual goals which nevertheless overlap and affect one another. Jet’s on the trail of a missing reporter, one who holds the key to a conspiracy that threatens to undermine the very foundation of her daily existence. Iridium has a plan to bring down the support structure which keeps the heroes of the Squadron functioning. But how does the rabidly anti-extrahuman Everyman organization fit into things? As Jet and Iridium work towards their goals, one thing becomes clear: there’s something rotten at the heart of the Academy, and whatever happens will affect every extrahuman alive … and threaten the entire world. Jet and Iridium are about to discover that nothing as as simple as it seems, and it can’t be measured in terms of black and white.
Black and White is a stunning superhero story built on a science fiction framework. Kessler and Kittredge do an excellent job of fleshing out Jet and Iridium’s world, showing us how the existence of superpowered individuals have affected its development over the next century or so, touching upon everything from technology to pop culture. We don’t get to see a lot in regards to normal society, the focus logically falling on how superhumans function, whether it’s their education and training, crime and punishment/rehabilitation, or day-to-day existence. However, enough hints are dropped to suggest that it’s not the happiest of societies, and that an underlying discomfort between human and extrahuman threatens to erupt into something far worse.
Of course, the worldbuilding wouldn’t mean much without the characters to inhabit it, and that’s where Jet and Iridium and all the others come in. From the start, we get to see how these two damaged individuals, each one a product of their society, form a tentative friendship that ultimately devolves into the enmity of the present. They’re believably flawed, both doing things for what they see as the right reasons, even when their actions prove to have unpleasant consequences. The supporting cast is just as fleshed out, from the enigmatic Night to the noble Samson to the quirky Frostbite to the arrogant Hornblower, all of whom have their roles to play throughout the course of the story. The addition of Bruce Hunter as Jet’s sexy assistant, and Taser as a vigilante who teams up with Iridium, injects a certain interesting tension into things; Jet struggles with long-sublimated physical desires, and Iridium wrestles with trust issues.
The plot is fascinatingly layered, with the authors leaping between past and present to drop story seeds and watch them grow. There’s so much happening, and it all ties together, making for a compelling exploration into the secrets at the heart of this society. There’s something corrupt and dark hidden in the depths of the extrahuman world, and watching it all unfold changes the nature of things considerably. Toss in some well-executed action scenes, and you pretty much have an ideal comic book in novel format. It’s going to be a long wait until the next installment of this series.
Who remembers the Madison All-Stars? For a short time in 2001, Madison, Wisconsin, was the home to a group of five super-powered college students, banded together in a shared attempt to understand their powers and change the world for the better. Painstakingly reconstructed through research and interviews, firsthand accounts and eyewitnesses, this is their story. A story of triumph and tragedy, heroism and loss, of the human spirit.
It all begins when five students wake up after a party, each with a hangover, and a different superhuman ability. Jack Robinson has become the fastest man around. Caroline Bloom can fly. Harriet Bishop can turn invisible. Mary Beth Lawson is inhumanly strong and durable. And Charlie Frost can read minds, whether he wants to or not. Naturally, there’s a lot of adjusting to do, for all of them, as they struggle to reconcile their unique abilities with their normal lives and scholastic careers and part-time jobs. Before long, the group decide to take things to the logical level, becoming actual superheroes in an attempt to use their powers for good. Solving crimes, foiling bank robberies and convenience store heists, preventing suicides and accidents, and so on, the so-called Madison All-Stars do their best to keep their identities secret as they fight crime, one day at a time.
But there’s all kinds of pressure mounting upon our heroes. School. Family. The authorities. The public. External demands and internal conflicts of personality, and the sneaking suspicion that there’s more, much more to their powers that meets the eye. With everyone from the police to the press sniffing around, the group begins to fragment under the strain, and in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, even as the deadly truth about one person’s powers emerge, it seems as though the world may indeed have seen the last of the Madison All-Stars. Were they heroes? Or just idiots in silly costumes? This is their story.
Superpowers is an odd book, to say the least. It reads like a love letter to comic books, written by someone deeply familiar with the genre conventions, but with an eye towards grounding things in the real world. The five superpowered characters – Jack, Charlie, Harriet, Mary Beth and Caroline – are ordinary college students, with wants and needs and desires, and feet of clay. They’re incredibly mundane, but their reactions to their powers are all too believable. Who wouldn’t revel in flight, or be overwhelmed with uncontrollable receptive telepathy, or prone to showing off a little now and again? They fight crime in costumes because, well, it’s sort of expected, and they don’t have any better ideas that wouldn’t expose them to worse potential dangers, like being kidnapped and dissected by the government. It’s an odd, if logical, way to go about doing things, and Schwartz doesn’t pull any punches in looking at how they affect the world, and how the world is affected by them. He looks at how fragile secret identities are, how the best of intentions can turn out poorly, and how a moment of weakness or bad judgment can have immense repercussions. In short, it’s certainly a realistic treatment, without delving too much into the grim and gritty exemplified in a work like Watchmen.
When you get right down to it, Superpowers is, at its heart, fairly mundane. There’s no world-saving, or epic villains to fight, or great castastrophes to stop. There’s just a handful of confused, conflicted young men and women in a relatively small city, and the people changed and touched by their brief time as superheroes. They drink, swear, have sex, screw up in a variety of ways, hurt one another and themselves, and do the best they can to function in a world not ready for people like them. Schwartz does venture into intriguing territory later on in the book, when he brings up the idea of previous superpowered groups, operating either in public or private, and the thought of someone rewriting history to cover it up. It’s those brief glimpses at a larger mythology that make me want to see more of this world, the thought that the Madison All-Stars weren’t alone, that this wasn’t a one-time happening, and that someone out there has the influence and power to simply make them vanish from the history books and news archives.
All in all, I really did enjoy this book. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. I had to know just what became of our little band of would-be heroes, and I was disappointed when their story ended, even knowing going into it that theirs was a finite tale. It might not have been everything I wanted in a superhero book, but Superpowers is nonetheless thought-provoking and entertaining, and Schwartz really captures the various voices of his protagonists. I’ll be looking for him in the future.
Somewhere off the beaten path of society and civilization, there lies the mysterious town of Shadows Fall. The elephants’ graveyard of the imagination, it’s where gods and heroes, legends and monsters, myths and childhood companions all go when their time is close to and end, when it’s time to fade away. Some stay and live out quiet lives as they’re forgotten by the outside world, others go through the enigmatic Forever Door, and on to whatever lies beyond. The entire town is ruled over by the immortal Father Time, who uses a variety of clockwork assistants and the turnip-headed Jack Fetch to help keep a semblance of order. It’s a town full of faded musicians, forgotten superheroes, formerly-beloved cartoon characters, time-tossed creatures, and much more. And then James Hart, the subject of an old prophecy, comes home at last, and everything changes, forever.
Even as a serial killer stalks the streets of Shadows Fall, the unstoppable forces of the fundmentalist Christian Warriors of the Light infiltrate and invade the town, and soon, the streets run with blood. In the middle of death and confusion and chaos, it’s all a small band of disparate characters can do to stay alive. James Hart, destined to bring Shadows Fall to an end. Polly Cousins, trapped in her house for decades by a memory. Lester Gold, the Mystery Avenger, a pulp hero who’s been retired for years. Sean Morrison, a rock and roll musician who died before his time. Leonard Ash, who came back from the dead as a revenant, his purpose unknown. Bruin Bear and the Sea Goat, anthropomorphic cartoon characters who refuse to be forgotten. Rhea Frazier, mayor of the endangered town. Madeleine Kresh, an angry young woman sworn to protect Father Time. They’ll all have their parts to play in the last moments of Shadows Fall. But as the Warriors of the Light slaughter indiscriminately, as the Wild Childe kills its own victims without warning, and as the legendary, terrifying forces of the Fae rise up from their Hill to do battle one last time, it’s possible that no one will survive the apocalyptic climax…
Shadows Fall is definitely one of Simon Green’s odder, more ambitious done-in-one books. Released a good fourteen years ago at this point, it’s an odd beast, reflecting an earlier style that defies easy description. Present are characters and organizations and concepts that will come back in later books, such as the Warriors of the Light and Bruin Bear, and the idea of overlapping genres; fantasy, science fiction, comic books, and childrens’ cartoons all mingle and interact in Shadows Fall, giving it an epic feel of anything goes. Also present are the bizarre ideas, catchy names, and evocative descriptions that can be found in just about any Simon Green book you care to name, from Lester Gold the Mystery Avenger, to Jack Fetch the silent (yet deadly) scarecrow. However, in a distinct change from the norm, Shadows Fall lacks the over-the-top uber-characters that populate his Nightside, Deathstalker, and other series. For all that Leonard Ash is unkillable because he’s already dead, the Fae are scarier and nastier than anything alive, and James Hart wields unimaginable power, there’s a very strong sense of most characters as, well, human and vulnerable. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s oddly refreshing to see such normal characters, and ironic that they should exist in a town populated by faded legends and forgotten heroes.
Shadows Fall is fast-paced and complex, but it tells a full story in the space of its pages, and we really get to know all od the main players, good and bad, throughout the course of events. Green takes some time to really establish who they are and what they mean to one another, before he cranks things up to the highest volume and cuts loose in a shocking orgy of violence, destruction, and mayhem. Literally, no one is safe in the latter half of the book, once the Warriors bring their war to Shadows Fall, and it’s almost overwhelming to see who lives and who dies, and in what fashion. My only real complaint would be the abrupt nature of the ending, which comes upon you like a brick wall at 80 miles per hour. Given that Shadows Fall is referenced in other works, such as the Nightside series, it’s obvious that it, or a version of it, is linked to the greater overall mythos Green’s created (one which connects the Nightside series, the Deathstalker series, the Secret History/Eddie Drood books, and the stand-alone Drinking Midnight Wine). I’m just not sure exactly how it fits in, given the semi-ambiguous nature of the ending. I suspect it’s best not to ask too many questions, and just roll with it.
I’ve always enjoyed this book. It’s heartfelt and complicated, with some interesting things to say about reality versus perception, the fickle nature of imagination, and the way pop culture goes through trends and discards bits and pieces regularly. I’ve always thought Bruin Bear was a nifty character to get to know, and I’d love to have read Lester Gold’s pulp adventures.
This is definitely a Simon Green classic. Some might say it’s his best; he certainly has claimed so on occasion. I say it’s great fun, and worth reading whether you’re a fan of urban fiction, a fan of Simon Green, or just in the mood for something sparawling, epic, action-packed, and yet confined to the pages of a single book. Give it a shot if you haven’t already.
Sixty years ago, the world was transformed by the accidental release of a deadly alien virus over New York City, which forever altered the human potential. For most who contract Xenovirus Takis-A, also known as the wild card, all they can expect is a swift, painful, horrible death. Most of those who survive are horribly deformed, twisted by their subconscious and the virus’ power into hideous Jokers. Maybe one in a hundred comes out ahead, gifted with amazing superpowers, and able to claim the heady title of Ace. For six decades, Aces and Jokers have made their mark on society, for better and worse. They’ve been heroes and villains, gods and devils, prophets and terrorists, victims and saviors. And now, in the new millenium, a new generation of wild cards has come into its own. These are the children of a new era, the ones who have never known anything but a wild card world, the ones to whom the initial outbreak and the chaotic years that followed are dusty bits of history. Not only do they have no idea what the Al Jolson Story is, they barely know who the tragic Jetboy was. For this generation, Aces and Jokers are just another part of society.
And in 2008, a new reality show is about to make its grand debut: American Hero, in which 28 Aces compete to see who’ll be the next great hero and pop culture icon. From all corners of the country they’ve come, full of vim and vigor, fire and energy, ready to split into teams and compete in elimination challenges. They control fire and earth, plants and wind, insects and kinetic energy, can transform themselves or fly, can heal any wound or lift great weights, and they all have one thing in common: a desire to be the next American Hero.
Divided into four teams, one for each suit of cards, these superhuman men and women battle the tasks set by the network, and try to outwit one another. As the game is played, more and more of these would-be heroes and media stars will be eliminated, leaving only the clever, the bold, and the manipulative to fight it out for the title of American Hero.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, the startling assassination of a major religious figure touches off chaos, and the beginnings of an Egyptian wild card genocide. Before long, some of the American Hero contestants, chafing at the artificiality of the show and driven to make a difference in the world, travel to Egypt in a daring, dangerous attempt to do some good. It’s here, in the face of real evil, with real death looming overhead, that they’ll be tested, weighed, and measured. With the entire world watching, who will become an American Hero, and who will become real heroes?
Inside Straight, like many of the Wild Cards books that came before it, is a mosiac novel: nine authors, each contributing stories, interstitial segments, and background material that all comes together to form one narrative. A strange cross between an anthology and a collaboration, it’s a complex piece of work, made all the more so for its ambitious plotline and sprawling cast of dozens. As such, it’s hard to pick apart the book by story or by author, not when each story builds upon the previous ones, and points of view shift and tone shift frequently. However, I can say this to start: it’s damned good. These authors have turned out a wide variety of new characters to populate the Wild Cards universe, many of them intriguing, all of them unusual. And while I confess to missing the “old school” Wild Cards, such as Popinjay, the Sleeper, Dr. Tachyon, Cap’n Trips, or my personal favorite, the Great and Powerful Turtle, I really hope we’ll see more of this new generation. Jonathan Hive, the journalist who can turn into a swarm of wasps, makes for a great viewpoint character, while The Amazing Bubbles, who converts kinetic energy into fat and then into explosive bubbles, is a sweet breath of fresh air.
Rustbelt, the iron-skinned Ace with a steam-shovel jaw, is wonderfully pragmatic and practical, and we can all recognize that drive to succeed that makes us occasionally do stupid things with Stuntman, who takes a licking and bounces back for more. It’s a shame there’s not more room, to give some of the other characters their time in the sun, since only a handful get fleshed out during the course of the story. For those who survive this story, let’s hope some of the others will take center stage next time.
The plot itself is as sprawling and thoughtful as usual, taking the idea of a world filled with superhumans, and following several thoughts to their logical conclusion. When the series first came out, reality shows were nowhere near as ubiqituous, but in the era of Survivor and American Idol (and Who Wants To Be A Superhero?) it makes perfect sense that in the Wild Cards universe, Aces would get a reality competition of their own. (I can see it now. . . . Who Wants To Marry An Ace? Extreme Makeover: Joker Edition. The Real World: Jokertown.) And of course, as usual, America’s fascination with pop culture blinds it to the all-too-real tragedies and atrocities and conflicts going on elsewhere in the world . . . that is, until a combination of events lure some of the would-be superstars into a situation where they can’t ignore it any longer. Watching as fake heroes become real heroes, fighting and suffering and overcoming their flaws along the way, that’s what makes for a great story.
The nine authors who had a hand in putting this story together all have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but overall, they mesh well together. Daniel Abraham’s interstitual segments, told from the viewpoint of Jonathan Hive (in part through Hive’s blog) help to maintain a sense of continuity and progression as the other stories leap back and forth between characters and events, showing the backstage and onscreen details of the American Hero competition. Carrie Vaughn looks at the story from the view point of Ana “Earth Witch” Cortez, a young woman still learning just what the limits of her powers might be. Michael Cassut introduces us to Jamal “Stuntman” Norwood, whose competitive spirit could win him the game, but cost him a lot of respect. Caroline Spector focuses upon things from the viewpoint of Michelle “The Amazing Bubbles” LaFleur, who struggles with her growing attraction to one of her teammates, while trying to hide a dark secret.
John Jos. Miller actually brings back an established character in the form of John Fortune, son of the famous Peregrine and infamous Fortunato and an Ace in his own right, until his powers burned out after nearly destroying the world. It’s John’s experiences which actually spark the journey from Hollywood to Egypt, as a decades-old plan finally comes to fruition. George R.R. Martin’s protagonist isn’t even part of the competition. Instead, Lohengrin is a German Ace who fancies himself a new form of crusading hero, a knight in gleaming armor. Ian Tregillis follows the story through the eyes of Wally “Rustbelt” Gunderson, who ultimately asks himself just what the right thing is, and what it means to be a hero. It’s his experiences which heavily influence the course of action taken by a number of characters throughout the last third of the book.
Proving that not all protagonists have to be heroes at heart, S. L. Farrell gives us Michael “Drummer Boy” Vogali, a Joker-Ace rock star who’s in it for the publicity and the women. His choices, however ill-considered and poorly played-out, nevertheless take him along a path of possible redemption. Melinda Snodgrass links the overall narrative together with several stories that shed further light upon the mechinations behind the scenes, utilizing several characters including the flamboyant, charming, and all too deadly stage magician, Noel Matthews, who knows far more than he’s letting on.
From the soundstages of Hollywood, to the blood-soaked sands of Egypt, Inside Straight provides a fresh look at the world of the Wild Cards, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve loved this series since it first started, and this book strikes just the right balance between optimism and pragmatism. Yes, there’s a lot of violence and some characters do die, but on the whole, there’s a somewhat upbeat, hopeful feel to the story. Some of the later Wild Cards books really did seem to lay the doom, gloom, and bloodshed on pretty thick, but Inside Straight gives us some great characters who don’t necessarily get horribly abused for a change. I’d like to think that this book is the perfect jumping on point for a whole new generation of readers, and the perfect welcome back to long-time fans. I was thoroughly satisfied with this entry in the series, and I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next installment. The only thing that could have improved Inside Straight would have been a guest appearance by the Sleeper, but I guess he was taking a nap this time around.
Oh, and for those wanting more of the background, I’m pleased to say, there’s a pair of Web sites dedicated to the Wild Cards saga, and this book in particular, which actually feature character profiles, artwork, and in-character “confessionals” granting some insight into the less-featured contestants on the show. I love getting to see what some of the stranger characters look like. As the Web site updated over the course of several months, following the progression of the show, week by week, it took on a life of its own. Even with the “season” over and the Web site no longer updating, it’s still a fascinating resource and expansion to the book. This site focuses upon the series as a whole, and is quite interesting in its own right. Check them out.