Princess Excellent

PrincessXCherie Priest’s latest novel is about the two most important things in life: friendship and superheroes.

Libby Deaton and May Harper met in fifth grade and together they created Princess X, a superhero who fought monsters, ghosts, and other unsavory invaders. Princess X was a badass, but instead of dressing in black leather like Catwoman or Emma Peel, she wore a frilly princess dress and red high-top sneakers. Her weapon of choice was the katana (“Basically the best sword ever,” says Libby). After appearing in hundreds of comic strips, the princess quickly became the girls’ alter ego, their avatar, and their third best friend.

The adventures of Princess X came to a screeching halt on the day Libby and her mom drove off a Seattle bridge. No more comics. No more best friend. No more nothing. May fell into a three-year funk of depression and inertia.

But suddenly and without warning, images of Princess X started popping up all over town. In addition, the dormant hero had somehow become a smash hit on the Internet. Instinctively, May knew what it meant: After all these years her friend Libby was still alive. And she was certain that clues of her whereabouts could be found in the webcomic.

Once the wheels of the story start spinning, I Am Princess X doesn’t slow down for a single second. Priest has written a dark cyber mystery that borrows a little bit from Alfred Hitchcock, Cory Doctorow, and V.C. Andrews. The suspense (and the lurking menace) is unyielding.

Credit must also go to artist Kali Ciesemier. Her Princess X comics (which are sprinkled throughout the book) are outstanding. Hybrid novels like this are tricky to pull off. Things can go off the rails quickly. Here, however, Priest and Ciesemier establish an easy synergy. The mystery is being solved concurrently in the webcomic and in real life, and you have to pay close attention to both. Thankfully the writer and the artist make sure their words and pictures are perfectly in sync.

At the end of the novel, May successfully lures the mad villain out of his secret lair. “I am Princess X!” she barks at him. After all, why should the comic strip princess have all the cool adventures? “It’s my turn to be the hero,” she says. The message is clear; it doesn’t matter who writes or draws the comic, we are all Princess X.

[I Am Princess X / By Cherie Priest and Kali Ciesemier / First Printing: May 2015/ ISBN: 9780545620857]

Posted in Published in 2015 | Tagged , ,

Live! In the Link Age 06.24.15

PowersPowers (a police procedural/superhero comic book series) debuted back in 2000. In March of this year, it popped up on the Playstation Network as an hour-long, live-action series. And now the inevitable has happened. Creator Brian Michael Bendis (with the help of Neil Kleid) has written a Powers novel (Powers: The Secret History of Deena Pilgrim / First Printing: January 2016 / ISBN: 9781250074072). Here’s a description from the publisher: “A cold case reopens when evidence from a new murder points back to Deena Pilgrim. Now Deena is forced to reunite with her estranged partner Christian Walker to investigate her family’s sordid past.”

If comics have taught us anything, it’s that death is rarely a permanent condition (Fritz the Cat, notwithstanding). And so it is with August Dillon (“The First Death of August” / By Matt King / First Printing: April 2015). He’s a rogue bounty hunter on the run from a highly advanced paramilitary outfit. But he’s also a newly minted superhero. Or, as he says, “I’m the first who’s willing to admit it.” Dillon knows that he’s strong. And he knows that his body heals quickly. But since he skipped his superhero training class, he’s not sure how strong and bulletproof he actually is. In this adventure, Dillon is killed by a clan of hillbilly bullies (“his life ended like a flame snuffed out in a windowless room”), and he’s later fed to a giant anaconda. When things get sorted out, he downplays his unlikely comeback. “I was a little off my game,” he says with a shrug. Find out more about the indestructible Mr. Dillon and The Circle of War series at the author’s website (here).

“Throwing the Gun” is a semi-regular podcast featuring some of the authors under the Pen and Cape Society umbrella. The second episode (here) features Drew Hayes, Cheyenne Young, Jim Zoetewey, and Christopher Wright talking about a variety of things relevant to superhero fiction. Check it out if you’ve got 75 minutes to spare.

Writer Gerard Jones contributes a foreword to the upcoming reprint of Gladiator by Philip Wylie (Gladiator: The Enduring Classic That Inspired the Creators of Superman / First Printing: November 2015 / ISBN: 9780486799346). Initially published in 1930, Gladiator is the story of a genetically altered man who achieves superhuman levels of strength, speed, and intelligence. It’s a novel that predates Superman and helped establish the superhero template.

When Captain Champion and the Sublime are brutally eliminated (Might Makes Right / By Emerson Cain / First Printing: May 2015), it’s up to Cimmerian Shade and a group of street-level heroes to protect their city from evil politicians, super-powered lunatics and the undead. Says the author in a recent email: “When I started Might Makes Right it was a completely different beast; a vision of a world consumed by beauty and power, fickle and inattentive in nature. While the end result is far from the original idea, I’d like to think a smidgen of that notion has carried through the drafts into the final product. To me, this story is about people with differing interpretations of justice and righteousness, people who will do anything and everything to ensure their outlook is the only view.”

Interviews: Mark Bousquet, author of Used To Be: The Kid Rapscallion (here). Jennifer Hartz, author of Divided: Heroes of the Horde, Book Four (here). Lisa M. Collins, author of The House Bast Made (here). Anthony Karcz, author of Nightingale: The League Cycle: Book One (here).

Reviews: I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest (here, here, here, and here). The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms (here).

For your reading pleasure: Ant-Man: Zombie Repellent and Falcon: Fight or Flight both by Chris Wyatt. Asian Pulp edited by Tommy Hancock and Morgan McKay (introduction by Leonard Chang). Public School Superhero by James Patterson, Chris Tebbetts, and Cory Thomas. The Betrayal of Renegade X by Chelsea M. Campbell. “Gailsone: Towerfall” by Casey Glanders. Mummies, Masks & Superpowers! By J.M. Perkins. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong (available 10.06.15). Apollo: The Brilliant One by George O’Connor (available 01.26.16). The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms (available 02.02.16).

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LoisClarkLois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a TV series from the ’90s that emphasized the flirty relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent. During its four-season history, the show was a fun and good-natured romantic comedy.

But judging by this 1996 novel, author C.J. Cherryh never saw a single episode of the show. It’s an extremely serious book with very little comic banter between Lois and Clark. Cherryh doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the spirit of the TV series.

Even more troubling, Lois & Clark: A Superman Novel is actually two separate books smooshed disharmoniously together. In one novel, Superman is tending to a disaster “somewhere uphill of Chechnya.” In the other novel, Lois is reporting on an disaster in Metropolis. In both, Clark Kent is simply a forgetful dingbat who drifts in and out of the newsroom at the Daily Planet.

Nowhere is there any winsome Nick and Nora-like chemistry between the two lovebirds. There is a smidgen of romance here and there (mostly at the end), but Cherryh seems to be saying that love and career are two separate things for Lois and Clark. “She had her job and he had his,” writes the author. “And they each did what they had to.”

Despite the book’s many missteps (and believe us there are many glaring missteps), Cherryh’s writing remains top-notch from the first page to the last chapter. She’s a veteran science fiction and fantasy author who has won a raft of industry awards (including the Hugo for her novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen). In truth, there’s no way a C.J. Cherryh novel is going to be a total bust.

For example, the way she describes Superman in the air is terrific. These reoccurring passages may be the best writing in the book. “He broke through the gloomy gray clouds of Metropolis into the brilliant day that existed above the storm, rising into increasing cold and thinner air. Here he breathed like a swimmer in surf, water streaming off him and then freezing in his wake. Snow might have followed him, however briefly.”

Flying across the Atlantic: “He wasn’t hungry, but he was burning up the energy around him, turning the air colder than surrounding air and creating microweather as he went, an effect that could generate a sparkle of ice as moisture froze in midair.”

And over Asia Minor: “He flew high, high above political boundaries where his radar signature might trip alarms and scramble aircraft. He might have been a falling satellite. A piece of space junk. A cosmic piece of debris above the ancient and disputed land of Anatolia.”

Because of the ongoing crisis in Europe, Superman spends a lot of time in this book going back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. Cherryh wants her readers to know that flying solo is a big part of being Superman. It’s lonely business being the last son of Krypton. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A man who can fly through a sunset should be able to share that experience with someone he loves.

[Lois & Clark: A Superman Novel / By C.J. Cherryh / First Printing: August 1996 / ISBN: 9780761504825]

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Enter the Dragons

TheDragonsOfHeavenFor some mysterious but utterly nefarious reason, someone had constructed a giant invisible dome over China. Nobody inside could get out. And nobody outside could get in. It was a “New Wall” for a new generation.

But give China some credit; the country was handling its quarantine with unsettling efficiency. And why not? If it could survive the upheavals of the 20th century and the madness of the Mao era it could survive anything.

But one way or another, that pesky wall had to come down. After all, what would Americans do without their cheap smartphones and sneakers if China were locked behind a magical wall?

To the rescue comes Mr. Mystic, a superhero with a long and spotty history. During WWII he helped smash the Axis Alliance. But at the same time he supported Japanese internment camps. And later, he was a poster boy for McCarthyism. In his glory days, he came across like a dapper British gentleman. In reality he was a mean fucking bastard.

But Mr. Mystic was old. Really old. If he was kicking Nazi butts back in the ’40s, how old was he now? He had to be older than 80. Some people theorized that he was ageless due to Eastern Kung Fu and meditative practices. Other people thought he was drinking Infinity Formula cocktails with Nick Fury.

Nobody, however, knew the truth. The original Mr. Mystic had disappeared years ago, and his legacy was being kept alive by his granddaughter Melissa “Missy” Masters. Dressed in pulp drag, she kept the streets of San Francisco safe at night. In three years of active duty nobody was the wiser.

Missy (aka Mr. Mystic) was uniquely talented to solve China’s problem. By slipping into the shadows that divided parallel worlds, she could pop in and out of the dome at will. Together with a star-spangled superhero and a member of San Francisco’s Chinese Triad, she arrives in Shanghai like a wrecking ball.

But things are always complicated in China. A council of dragon spirits and huxian hotties were waiting to pounce on Missy. In fact, all these guardians of heaven and folkloric creatures shared an intimate history with the Masters family. And they couldn’t wait to get their claws into her. It became clear pretty quickly that the invisible dome over China was a payback powerplay. “Dragons are assholes,” says Missy at one point.

The Dragons of Heaven is a superhero novel with a pinch of retro pulp fiction. We like that. It’s also a fantasy novel and an epic love story with lots of Kung Fu and dragons. We like that too. Once in Shanghai, the plot bogs down a little bit. But don’t worry, it picks up eventually. The author’s knowledge and enthusiasm for Chinese mythology ultimately wins the day. This will be the most unusual superhero novel you’ll read all year. Guaranteed.

“Wandering girls who wake up in fairy tale environments rarely fare well,” writes the author. “And in Chinese folklore, mortals who dally with spirits usually end up worse off then they started.” Despite the overwhelming odds against her, Mr. Mystic came to China, matched wits with feuding dragons, and prevented WWIII. Says Missy: “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

[The Dragons of Heaven / By Alyc Helms / First Printing: June 2015 / ISBN: 9780857664334]

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Powerless (Again)

VillainousYears ago, when we read Matthew Cody’s terrific superhero novel Powerless, we never suspected that it was the first book in a planned trilogy. And yet here we are. Villainous crowns a three-book series about kids with super powers living in the weirdest town on earth.

Looking back, the author could easily have stopped after one book. The two follow-up efforts (including Super, the second novel) didn’t significantly expand on anything mentioned in the first book. But we know how things go. Certainly, Villainous leaves the door open for more superheroic adventures. We’re positive that Cody and his publisher would consider pumping out another novel if BookScan numbers were favorable.

To recap: Back in 1934, the town of Noble’s Green, Pa., experienced an “unclassified celestial phenomenon.” One night, according to first-hand reports, the stars above the town were obscured by storm clouds lit with a sallow greenish light. “It looked like the end of the world,” said one particular eyewitness cowering in an outhouse.

As a result, a handful of locals acquired god-like powers; including Johnny Noble, an “ignorant woodsman.” Noble, much to his chagrin became the world’s very first superhero. His reluctant adventures, serialized in a best-selling comic book, would inspire future generations of tiny titans.

These days Noble’s Green was famous for being superhero ground zero. Tourists came to the small Pennsylvania town to take pictures of all the flashy superheroes, including Kid Noble and the students of the Noble Academy for the Gifted. Mr. Madison, the floating (!) fire chief, was the town’s star resident.

But like Springfield, the home of Homer Simpson, Noble’s Green was haunted by a grumpy (and rich) old man. Herman Plunkett looked like Nosferatu the vampire, and terrorized the town’s people much like Charles Montgomery Burns — he even steepled his fingers ominously in the same manner (page 197). Plunkett is the vanquished villain in all three books. He returns over and over again but the super kids always figure out a way to squash him. He’s a persistent old bat, that’s for sure.

Plunkett is sufficiently evil, but Villainous is mostly about superhuman ennui. What kind of emotional toll must be paid to possess god-like perspicacity? And what happens when those powers go away? What’s it like, for instance, to soar over buildings on Sunday and be anchored to the sidewalk on Monday? “It’s not fair,” said Plunkett at one point. “A boy dreams his whole life of being Johnny Noble, only to wake up one day alone in the knowledge that he is something else entirely. He’s quite the opposite.”

[Villainous / By Matthew Cody / First Printing: August 2014 / ISBN: 9780385754897]

Posted in Published in 2014 | Tagged ,

Mighty Meds

LessThanHeroA recent medical study found that 70 percent of Americans are merrily ingesting at least one prescription drug. Of this percentage, more than half of us are taking two or more pills at a time – with antibiotics, antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, opioids, high blood pressure medications, and vaccines making up the bulk of the prescriptions. Most troubling is that a third of all these drugs are toxic to humans, with side effects worse than the affliction being medicated.

Clearly we’re gradually becoming more and more dependent on drugs. Whatever our problems may be there’s inevitably a handy proton energy pill waiting for us at the friendly neighborhood Roger Ramjet Drugstore.

So it seems reasonable to assume that it’s only a matter of time before evolution makes a leap forward and humans start exhibiting permanent drug-inspired side effects. Some people, like the characters in S.G. Browne’s new book, have already jumped to the top of Darwin’s short list. Lloyd Prescott and his pals for instance.

They’re professional guinea pigs. They get paid to take generic painkillers, heart medications, and other probationary drugs being developed and tested for consumer use. By volunteering for clinical trials and taking experimental drugs for the past five years, they’ve all developed some kind of mutated superpower.

“We’re genetic mutants, freaks of science,” says Lloyd. “We’ve become drug-reaction crimefighters. Side-effect superheroes, using our pharmaceutically enhanced abilities to teach criminals a lesson.”

With a collection of powers that give people rashes and erections, or make them fall asleep, gain weight, vomit, and go into convulsions, Lloyd and his slacker mutant squad decide to rid Manhattan of litterbugs, smokers, and loud talkers.

Less Than Hero is filled with social commentary on the proliferation of pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S. But it’s also a story about figuring out what it is you’re supposed to do with your life. Take Lloyd for example. Growing up, his shortlist of dream jobs included professional golfer, travel writer, general manager of the Mets (or Yankees), and photographer for Playboy. But he never had much imagination or ambition to begin with. He just sort of drifted along and got older, waiting for something interesting to happen. Becoming a superhero was a way for him to escape his own inertia.

Things get hairy for the Super Six when two pharmaceutically enhanced guinea pigs decide to pursue careers in villainy. On one hand, the novel’s inevitable superhero/supervillain clash follows a predicable conclusion. But also, it underscores the author’s point. Which is: In life, we must all find our unique path.

“Some people might say we’re being stupid by living a childish comic book fantasy,” says Lloyd. But he knows that common sense takes a backseat when you’ve been given the opportunity to be something greater than you ever imagined. “We’re not ready to take on Doctor Doom or Magneto,” he says, “but at least we’re able to make a difference for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Just because we’re not from the planet Krypton and we weren’t bitten by a radioactive spider doesn’t mean we can’t be superheroes.”

[Less Than Hero / By S.G. Browne / First Printing: March 2015 / ISBN: 9781476711744]

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Our Violent Century

Violent CenturyWe remember reading initial reviews of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, The Fortress of Solitude. Many critics were clearly baffled by the author’s decision to include a superhero in his giant, messy semi-autobiographical novel.

But those early critics were quickly silenced by the consensus. Released in 2003, Lethem’s masterpiece of race and culture is now considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written about New York City. With The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem deftly proved that comic books and superhero tropes have literary merit.

In many ways, author Lavie Tidhar has done the same thing with his novel, The Violent Century. He’s written a knotty spy thriller about mid-century global events and he fearlessly added superheroes to the mix. Imagine that.

But Tidhar’s book isn’t a secret history. Nor is it an alternative history. It’s mostly a parallel history. The real world is full of marching armies, rockets, atomic bombs, and death camps. These things align perfectly with comics and “cheap novels.” Consequently, when superheroes show up on the beach at Normandy in 1944 it totally makes sense.

In this pre- and post-WWII era, the Nazi Übermenschen Korps battle the League of Defenders (from the U.S.), and the Union of Socialist Heroes (from Russia). The British have their own group of beyond-men too: the BSA (the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs). The novel focuses on two of these British superheroes: Oblivion and Fog.

Even though both men had special gifts (Oblivion could “make things not exist,” and Fog could manipulate fog and smoke), their duty to King and Country was to simply observe and gather intel. But as we all know, to observe something is to change it. And that’s what happened. Oblivion and Fog ventured into the war zone and accidentally uncovered the biggest secret imaginable.

Supermen, over-men, beyond-men, übermenschen – they were all created by the Vomacht wave, a device that unleashed a quantum blast allowing humans to harness the basic power of the universe. But what nobody knew was that the Vomacht wave was not a single, observable occurrence. Rather, it was a sustained confluence. It did not happen and then pass. Oblivion and Fog discovered that it was still happening. The world, they realized, was forever changed.

In the end (spoiler alert!), the Axis Alliance was defeated. But before he shot himself, Hitler changed the world forever. He rose to power and rewrote world history like a lurid paperback. The quantum bomb created a new era of super men who acted within a moral vacuum of nihilism to create a new set of values. “We won the war,” said the head of the BSA, “but we lost ourselves.”

[The Violent Century / By Lavie Tidhar / First U.S. Printing: February 2015 / ISBN: 9781250064493]

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