Use Your Illusion, Part I

IllusiveDystopian novels are often set in the near future and feature an oppressive alternate universe that extrapolates upon the worst tendencies of contemporary society. If you read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, or The Giver in school, you undoubtedly have a pretty good idea of what dystopian fiction is all about.

These days the genre has been overrun by a stampede of perky YA authors. Never mind dusty tomes like A Clockwork Orange or The Handmaid’s Tale, kids today are reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Legend by Marie Lu, and Delirium by Lauren Oliver. And if they’re hip kids, they’re probably also reading Battle Royale by Koushun Takami.

Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones is a novel that aligns comfortably with this new wave of dystopian fiction. The story’s protagonist is a teenage girl named Ciere Giba, and like Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, she’s fighting against a brave and horrible new world. This time, however, there’s a twist: superheroes are involved.

Problems arise in 2017 when a new disease called Meningococcas Krinotas shows up in Africa. Within six months the MK plague reaches every corner of the globe and the human race is on its way to extinction. In a word: Yikes!

To the rescue comes a vaccine called Praevenir. It isn’t exactly a cure, but it does provide immunity against MK. Unfortunately (?) there are some side effects. Approximately 0.003 percent of those vaccinated experience superhuman-like powers such as telepathy, perfect recall, increased intuition, levitation, body manipulation, and hypnosis. Our hero, for example, becomes an illusionist—a human chameleon.

So what’s the problem? The MK plague is defeated and a small number of people are now enrolling in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. That sounds pretty awesome to us.

The problem, however, is this: The vaccine’s side effects could have changed the world for the better. It could have ushered in a new world order—a glorious age of heroes dedicated to solving all of humanity’s problems. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. “Human physiology was altered,” writes the author. “But human nature wasn’t.”

It’s now 2034 and the United States is forcibly “recruiting” an army of overmen. “We stand on the brink of war with several countries,” explains a shadowy government agent. “America’s only advantage over its many enemies is the number of super soldiers it can control.”

From his perspective, the growing number of superhumans creates currency with the government. And to him, that’s good news. But others don’t see it that way. “We’re not people to them,” counters Kit Copperfield, the leader of a small band of super mercenaries. “We’re nothing but tools. Interchangeable human weapons.”

Humanity has always defined itself by its weapons. The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Atomic Age—we track our progress by how easily we can take another person’s life. Now ask yourself this question: How will historians see this newly emerging generation? The answer according to author Lloyd-Jones is simple. The moment Praevenir was introduced to the population, humanity itself became the weapon. In 20 years we’ll all be living in the Superhuman Age.

[Illusive / By Emily Lloyd-Jones / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9780316254564]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged , ,

The Hunter and the Hunted

1P_HUNTER_JKT.inddAfter spending a lifetime reading superhero fiction, there’s one thing we’ve learned: The most important thing about being a superhuman is the “human” part. The “super” part is nothing but sound and fury and utility belts.

That’s something Lancelot Mckendrick doesn’t fully understand at the beginning of Michael Carroll’s latest New Heroes/Quantum Prophecy novel. He’s only 14 years old and he’s still trying to figure out his place in the world. “I don’t know whether I want to be a superhero or a con man,” he says.

To clear his head, Lance rejects his superhero friends (Roz, Abby, James, and Gethin) and hooks up with the Circus Fantabulosa. Now calling himself Hunter Washington, he lives in anonymity amid the carnival’s manufactured revelry. As the years go by, Lance (correction: Hunter) blossoms into a mature adult. Life as a carny is grueling, transitory, and often unforgiving. But the circus teaches him valuable lessons in humility and selflessness (he also picks up a sundry of useful sideshow tricks like how to eat light bulbs and train kittens). As he grows older, he no longer wants to be a superhero or a con man.

During his time under the big tent, Hunter continues to harbor a secret personal agenda. As the carnival travels from city to city, he is obsessed with finding the woman who murdered his family five years ago (see The Ascension for more details). In this way, Hunter’s basic nature is conflicted. Is he, like his new name implies, on the prowl for revenge? Or is he subconsciously hiding from his former superhero colleagues? In other words, is he the hunter or the hunted?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is both. He needs to find Slaughter (the crazy lady who killed his mother, father, and brother) so he can find peace of mind and bury the past. But he also needs to stay disconnected from the superhero community because he doesn’t want to become a pawn in the megalomaniacal clash between Max Dalton and Casey Duval. How he reconciles this dilemma is at the core of the novel.

Plans have a way of not working out, especially when superheroes are involved. But Hunter is smart (and lucky) enough to avoid any debilitating distractions. Before the book ends, he has sober one-on-one moments with both Slaughter and Max Dalton. These moments help steer the story to a bittersweet (and very human) conclusion.

[Hunter / By Michael Carroll / First Printing May 2014 / ISBN: 9780399163678]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged , , ,

Live! In the Link Age 10.04.14

GhostRiderGN01We’ve been reading (and enjoying) the “All New” adventures of Ghost Rider (Engines of Vengeance / First Printing: October 2014 / ISBN: 9780785154556). Author Felipe Smith is a unique talent who might be the most interesting creator currently working in mainstream comics. As an auteur he emerged from the OEL (Original English Language) manga movement. But he quickly redeemed himself when he moved to Tokyo to work for Kodansha as an honest-to-goodness mangaka. Unlike David Mazzucchelli, Paul Pope, and Takeshi Miyazawa (three artists we like very much as well), Smith was actually published during his time in Japan. Gold star emoji for him.

Smith is an incredible artist so it’s slightly disappointing that he’s “only” writing the new Ghost Rider comic book. But we have a feeling he’s providing detailed page layouts and thumbnails because artist Tradd Moore is doing a pretty good Felipe Smith imitation. The end result is totally weird in a good way. Smith’s comics always feature a jumble of influences and they inevitably spring fully formed from his hyperactive id. Ghost Rider, we’re happy to see, contains a small spark of his eccentric genius. For a better idea of Smith’s full talent, however, we recommend his manga series, Peepo Choo. It’s already been translated and released in the U.S., so it’s easy to track down.

Alan Moore has completed a novel that is over one million words in length (that’s about twice as long as War and Peace, btw). The title of the as-of-yet unedited manuscript is Jerusalem. According to The Guardian, it’s about “a small area—half a square mile across—of the town where Moore grew up in Northampton, and explores its history through his family’s past.” Adds the author: “Any editor worth their salt would tell me to cut two-thirds of this book but that’s not going to happen.”

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore has already been called “a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history.” And who are we to argue? For more information about the “secret” and “surprising” origin of Wonder Woman, check out the author’s recent article in Smithsonian Magazine (here). For further insights about Wonder Woman (and her creator, William Moulton Marston), we also recommend reading Lepore’s article in The New Yorker (here). We think this snippet is rather keen: “The much cited difficulties regarding putting Wonder Woman on film aren’t chiefly about Wonder Woman, or comic books, or superheroes, or movies,” she writes. “They’re about politics. Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman-suffrage campaigns of the nineteen-tens and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later. Wonder Woman is so hard to put on film because the fight for women’s rights has gone so badly.” Watch a video of the author talking about her new book (here).

Stephen Henning has written four novels in his Class Heroes series. (One of these days we’ll get around to reading them. We promise!) But Henning isn’t just an author; he’s also an enthusiastic filmmaker. And as such, he’s looking to boost sales of his books via dramatic live-action book trailers—with actors and everything. Forget about sending ARCs to reviewers. Old media doesn’t work like it used to. Says Henning: “The books are aimed at teenage readers and therefore you promote them by creating the sort of material that attracts teenagers.” Good point. For more information about Henning and his Class Heroes mini-movies, check out the recent article in the East Anglian Daily Times (here).

Believe us, reading self-published and small press novels can be an eye-rolling experience. But slowly over the years we’ve discovered a few good writers swimming in the murky waters of indy publishing. Robert T. Jeschonek, Fritz Freiheit, and Casey Glanders come immediately to mind. Another writer we enjoy is Frank Byrns. He’s been involved with superhero prose fiction for a long time (as a publisher and a writer) and the quality of his work is consistently top-notch. We’re happy to see that a new short story collection by Byrns is now available. Says his publisher: “Deconstructing a hero is a popular theme in fiction today. However, what Frank Byrns does in this book (Adonis Morgan: Nobody Special / First Printing: September 2014 / ISBN: 9781502353429) is something different. He takes a larger than life powered type and shows us what comes after he stops being a costumed superhero.” For more information about the author and his various publishing efforts, check out this entertaining podcast interview (here).

Introducing Marvel’s brand new branded superhero: Captain Citrus. AdWeek explains how Florida’s Department of Citrus got its own crusader. For more information, watch the extended video here.

Interviews: Ian Thomas Healy, author of Champion. Kipjo Ewers, author of The First. Johnny Morice, author of The Hunter (here and here).

Austin Grossman reviews Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (here). More reviews: Illusive by Emily Lloyd-Jones (here). Black Ice by Susan Krinard (here). Resistance by Samit Basu (here). Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines (here). Vicious by V.E. Schwab (here). Dangerous by Shannon Hale (here). Indomitable by J.B. Garner (here). The Red Sheet by Mia Kerick (here). Out of Time by Donna Marie Oldfield (here). The Blue Effect by Rose Shababy (here). Flypaper Boy: Coming of Age by Philip Carroll (here).

For your reading pleasure: Average by J.C. Thompson. Cobalt City: Los Muertos by Nathan Crowder. “Lightweight: Burned” by Nicholas Ahlhelm. “Gailsone: Ifrit” by Casey Glanders. Champion by Ian Thomas Healy. Bounty Hunter Code: Revelations of Boba Fett by Daniel Wallace, Ryder Windham, and Jason Fry. The Island of Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer. Liar’s Paradise by Steven Hartman. Superhero Story by Harlowe Pilgrim. Strong Female Protagonist: Book One by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag (available 12.14). Shaft by David Walker and Bilquis Evely (available 12.14). The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms (available 01.01.15).

Posted in Live! In the Link Age | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Tales to Astonish

Astonishing HeroesThe official title of Gary Phillips’ latest book is Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice. But a better title would have been: Ten the Hard Way.

That’s because this collection of ten short stories features a riotous mix of tough guys, tough ladies, eccentric villains, Satanists, strippers, dominatrices, samurai, deposed Communist leaders, superheroes, robots, gadgets, clones, weird science, jazz, funk, drugs, kung fu, Fu Manchu mustaches, platform boots, afros, and sex. It’s a book for anyone who remains nostalgic for the golden age of Toei films, blaxploitation movies, and lusty grindhouse cinema.

Like many of the iconic films starring Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, Pam Grier, Sonny Chiba and Charles Bronson, Astonishing Heroes is a titillating confluence of sex and violence. It’s like watching a weekend movie marathon of Shaft, Slaughter, Hammer, The Street Fighter, Death Wish and Cleopatra Jones. And like all those great movies, the stories in this book empower marginalized, underserved, and disenfranchised groups like African-Americans, Native Americans, Vietnam War veterans, and women. Forget about The Expendables, it’s time for T.N.T. Jackson and John Shaft to make their explosive comebacks.

Of all of Phillips’ reoccurring characters, our favorite is Andronicus “Ange” Edwards (he’s the guy with the cocked fist on the book’s front cover, btw). He pays his bills working as an orderly at the Willow Manor Extended Care Facility. But when he’s not attending to the infirmed, he’s on the streets busting heads as a superhero named Kidd Vee. Edwards is a 19-year-old homeboy who grew up watching booty-shaking rap videos on BET, but his career as a crimefighter began the day he unwittingly inherited the Founder’s Stone, a magical talisman once possessed by Gilgamesh, Ogun, and Joan of Arc. “Fate,” he is told, “is always throwing us curveballs.”

We like Edwards because he’s navigating the superhero learning curve the best he can. He values counsel from his girlfriend (and manager), but he’s basically gaining experience on the (super) fly. All in all, he’s a good kid. The Founder’s Stone gave him increased strength, quick reflexes, and enduring stamina. But he really needs a Batmobile or “one of those flying sports cars like Nick Fury uses.” His role models are T’Challa (the Black Panther) and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Funny. Those are our role models too.

For readers who want more hardcore action, the stories featuring Booker “Book” Essex are more in sync with blaxploitation movies like Black Gunn and That Man Bolt. Essex is a Vietnam War veteran and an alpha male who fights crime as the Silencer. In between assignments, he enjoys a little recreational sex with the ladies. Unlike Kidd Vee, Essex knows exactly what it takes to be a superhero.

The author brings a handful of his characters together in the book’s final story, “The Bells of Doom.” The story itself is rather silly. But so what? Seeing Edwards, Essex, Perry Decaine (American Black), Roarke (the Reclaimer), Gerald Getze (Terror Flame, the super Nazi), Clara Rundgren (the Blonde Ghost), and Onyx Adams together under the same roof is a clever (and fun) way to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion. If you think the Justice League of America is a whiter shade of pale, this Astonishing Heroes team-up was written just for you.

[Astonishing Heroes: Shades of Justice / By Gary Phillips / First Printing: July 2014 / ISBN: 9781500424923]

Posted in New/Old Pulp, Original Characters, Published in 2014, Short Story Collections | Tagged , ,

Battle for Midgard

blackiceThe end of the world (Ragnarok) is nigh and Loki Laufeyson has plans to turn Earth into his own private playpen. But he’s not alone. Odin and the rest of his brood have the exact same plan. Jotunheim and Asgard have been destroyed and everyone is looking for a new place to call home. No matter how things turn out, the Twilight of the Gods spells doom for all of mankind.

If you’re familiar with Norse mythology (and Marvel comic books), you already know that Loki is the harbinger of Ragnarok. And you also know that he is indirectly responsible for the deaths of Odin and Thor. The Vikings didn’t like him back in the 13th century. And the Avengers don’t like him now. He’s been called a trickster, a slanderer, and a devil, but he is, and always will be, a giant pain in the ass.

In Black Ice, the second volume in Susan Krinard’s prose edda, things are unfolding a little bit differently as foretold. Ragnarok never quite happened the way it was supposed to. Loki wasn’t totally successful in his evil plan. Yes, eight of the original homeworlds were destroyed. But Midgard (Earth) still exists.

Now Loki has come to San Francisco with plans to start the war all over again (see Krinard’s first novel in the series, Mist, for more information). And this time he’s going to do it right. Odin and Thor (and the Warriors Three) are locked away in a godly shadow-realm called Ginnungagap. And that means Loki and his army of frost giants stand unopposed. The shape-shifting god can do whatever he wants with no niggling interference from those Asgardian pests.

The only thing standing in Loki’s way is a battalion of 12 Valkyrie warriors armed with specific divine weapons (like Odin’s spear and Thor’s hammer). The leader of the female furies is Mist Bjornsen, daughter of Freya—the goddess of love and sex and war and death. You know, all the important stuff.

Lady Mist is described as having beautiful Scandinavian features, grave gray eyes, and the aura of strength and purpose. “Very Norse, and very much a warrior.” It’s her job to marshal her Valkyrie sisters, defeat Loki, and prevent Ragnarok. If she can get some sexy time with a grim elf named Dainn, that would be nice too.

We have two minor problems with Krinard’s series so far. The story basically revolves around Mist, Loki, and Dainn (we have no problem with that, btw). But a lot of interesting characters are introduced and quickly abandoned due to ongoing narrative demands. That’s too bad. Freya, for example, is a powerful, magnetic presence whenever she pops up. But due to extenuating circumstances, she’s reduced to a minor role. We want to see more of her. Also, the 11 Valkyries in Mist’s army are just set decoration. Why write a book about Valkyries and not give them something interesting to do? Hopefully in the next book we’ll get substantial action from Bryn, Eir, Rota (yes, Rota!), Hild, and the rest of the gang. The good news is that we’ll probably see a lot more of Regin. She’s the Valkyrie who has possession of Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir. We’re guessing that’s an important piece of weaponry needed to smash Loki and his Jotunn jackanapes.

Black Ice ends with a crazy plot twist on the night before Christmas. Despite all the obstacles before her, we’re confident that Mist will ultimately prevail in a huge battle royale on Christmas day. She’s ready. “Mist, you’re so dramatic,” taunts Loki at one point. “It would seem you have been enjoying too many tales of heroes with extraordinary powers who rush in to save the day whenever the weak or innocent are in the clutches of a monstrous villain.” Reading between the lines, even the Trickster God seems to know that his days of debauchery are coming to an end shortly.

[Black Ice / By Susan Krinard / First Printing: August 2014 / ISBN: 9780765332097]

Posted in Of Interest, Published in 2014, Romance | Tagged , , , , ,

DinahMite

ReckoningPeople become superheroes for all sorts of reasons. Often they are motivated by an overwhelming sense of civic duty or they are possessed by superior moral standards. Some are inspired entirely by revenge.

For Dinah Geof-Craigs, however, she just wanted to be famous. Metahumans were more popular than movie stars and musicians and she dreamed of one day being on the cover of celebrity magazines like Teen Hero and SuperPeople.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t born with any kind of X-traordinary super power. It was her brother, and not her, who had struck the mutant gene jackpot. He possessed both telekinesis and telepathy abilities. Dinah was just a superhero wannabe and a jealous little sister.

But jealousy can sometimes be a great motivator. It inspired Dinah to bend fate in her direction. “My goal in life was to become a brilliant geneticist,” she said, “to study human-to-metahuman evolution, and to find a way to induce meta-mutation in myself.”

Dinah does, in fact, turn herself into a superhero. And this book is her autobiography (co-written by Vincent M. Wales). It is a personal memoir that chronicles her rollercoaster-like ride from grumpy teenager to selfless superhero. Interestingly, it is the first of three volumes.

At the start, Dinah comes off like a self-centered brat. “I wield sarcasm like a bludgeon instead of a rapier,” she admitted. “I considered the eye roll sublimely eloquent.” She was a moody cuss who harbored an unreasonable jealousy of her doting older brother. And like all teenagers, she had an ongoing combative relationship with her parents.

Eventually Dinah moves to San Francisco to make her superhero debut. Calling herself Dynamistress (Ooh! Steamy!), she eventually enlists in the Bay Scouts, a superhero team affiliated with the U.S. Coast Guard. One thing leads to another and she quickly gets entangled in a Fringe-like parallel universe caper.

As a memoir, Reckoning has an overriding reflective and pensive nature. We were happy to see that this navel gazing ultimately culminates in a nice little denouement by the last chapter.

Early in the book, Dinah reflects upon a happy moment from elementary school. In a second grade talent show she stepped on stage to sing the song “Car Wash” by Rose Royce. By all accounts she killed it. “There was no denying my enthusiasm,” she said. “The audience was enjoying my performance. They could see that I was talented and pretty.”

Upon further reflection, Dinah finally acknowledges that six of her classmates were on stage too. The audience wasn’t just responding to her singing alone. They were actually enjoying the entire ensemble. It is this memory that helps Dinah morph into a fully mature, magnanimous adult. No matter who we are (daughter, sister, friend, lover, superhero), we are always a better person with the love and encouragement of other people.

[Reckoning / By Dinah Geof-Craigs and Vincent M. Wales / First Printing: October 2013 / ISBN: 9780974133751]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2013 | Tagged ,

Beyond Good and Evil

minion“When I was 12 years old,” says Michael Marion Magdalene Morn-Edson, “my father strapped a bomb to my chest and drove me to the First National Bank and Trust so we could steal $27,500.” Apparently Michael’s father needed the extra cash to A) finish a diabolical gadget, and B) buy some groceries. “We were out of frozen waffles,” he admits.

Don’t be mistaken, however; Michael wasn’t exactly a bad guy. Genghis Khan was a bad guy. And so was Vlad the Impaler. Michael, on the other hand, was just a young kid trying to help out his dad. “I’m not a supervillain,” he says. “Not even close.”

Over the years, Michael had learned one valuable lesson from his father: It was important to believe in something—even if it was wrong. More than anything, he didn’t want to be a bystander—a guy who spent his whole life holding his breath, waiting for something remarkable to happen. As such, by the time he was a teenager, Michael already had a history that put him at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list.

Michael and his father’s lawless lifestyle is threatened one day when a mysterious superhero shows up in their hometown. New Liberty had been a super-less city for a long time. All the supervillains dried up during the Great Migration, and all the superheroes left for greater glory. The arrival of the Cobalt Comet (or whatever he called himself) took everyone by surprise, especially vandals, delinquents, and organized crime kingpins.

No doubt about it, having a superhero in town was a big deal. But for Michael, there was something far more upsetting going on in his life. He met a cute girl at the mall recently and she was driving him nuts. “I blame my father,” Michael says. “He taught me way too much about physics and 19th century literature and absolute jack about talking to girls.”

Michael and Viola eventually develop a sweet friendship that blooms into a tentative love affair (the novel’s final chapter, btw, is very sweet indeed). “Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. And that’s the case here. Viola helps Michael come to terms with his true nature beyond villains and heroes. “I’m not evil,” says Michael on the very first page of this novel. “But sometimes it’s hard to know what’s right and what’s best and why there even has to be a difference.” He’s not alone. That’s something we all have to figure out eventually.

[Minion / By John David Anderson / First Printing: June 2014 / ISBN: 9780062133113]

Posted in Original Characters, Published in 2014 | Tagged , ,