As Above, So Below

KarnakJust because no one worships them anymore doesn’t mean the ancient Egyptian gods are gone forever. All gods, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, or otherwise, have infinite patience. They’re just waiting around until the time is right for a comeback.

But if all the ancient gods are on hiatus, what exactly does that mean? Here’s one theory: According to Hermeticism (a philosophy that embraces the mysteries of the universe), the physical world represents the heavens, and the heavens represent the physical world. The two are basically interchangeable. What happens here on earth is a direct reflection of what’s going on in the celestial realm. As above, so below.

Think about it. If the pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods has been displaced because of a heavenly reorg, what (or who) replaced them? Mankind perhaps? And if so, does that mean we possess the ability to manipulate the heavens too? Magic Eightball says “Sure, why not?”

Obviously this power vacuum offers an opportunity for an enterprising madman to take control of Aaru, Duat, and all the temples of Karnak. All he has to do is resurrect Thoth (the architect of heaven) and Sekhmet (the daughter of the sun) and burn down Manhattan (otherwise known as the Empire of Greed).

That, in a nutshell, is the crisis Gabriel Cross faces in his latest adventure. Cross (aka the Ghost) is familiar with all sorts of supernatural shenanigans. In two previous superhero/pulp/steampunk novels (read our reviews here and here) he dispatched an army of moss men, monsters from an alternative dimension, giant one-eyed squids, and a riot of itchy raptors. More than anyone else, the Ghost has the experience (and the gadgets) to smash any sort of shaggy apocalyptic cult that shows up uninvited to his front door.

But this time the Ghost needs a little bit of help. In the very first chapter, he suffers debilitating injuries from a guy encased in a Gundam/Appleseed-like armored suit. Consequently, to squash the Cult of Thoth, he must put together a preternatural version of the Howling Commandos that includes his sharp-shooting girlfriend, a persnickety museum curator, a necromancer, a couple of inspectors from the New York Police Department, and an 18th century automation. Ghost Gang assemble!

As always, the Ghost is a compelling character who moves between shadows “like a specter, swift and silent.” Like the Shadow he’s a combat veteran who’s ongoing war with criminals gives him a purpose in life. And like Batman, he’s a wealthy dilettante by day who patrols the night with a cache of cool gadgets. His tactics might be anathema, but he gets the job done. “We’re better with him, than without him,” says one crime scene detective.

Despite his well-earned rep, Gabriel Cross isn’t the hero of this particular book. He’s just an ineffectual peripheral character. It’s actually Ginny Gray and Astrid Lunn, two members of his Ghost Gang, who dismantle the Thoth/Sekhmet alliance. We like the Ghost (and we’re looking forward to the next book in the series, Ghosts of Empire), but these two wildcats steal the spotlight every time they report for duty. To paraphrase the quote from the previous paragraph: “Ghosts of Karnak is better with them, than without them.”

[Ghosts of Karnak / By George Mann / First Printing: May 2016 / ISBN: 9781783294169]

Posted in Pre-existing | Tagged ,

Heroine Chic

Heroine ComplexWe don’t know Sarah Kuhn at all, but according to her author bio we live in the same city. That means we might have bumped into each other unknowingly at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, or attended the same 4-Star Theatre matinee, or stood in line together one weekend for a scoop of Humphry Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast ice cream.

It’s true that we’ve never met. But we’ve read Kuhn’s novel Heroine Complex, and that means we have a pretty good idea of what kind of person she is. Undoubtedly she’s funny and clever and a sparkling dinner companion. She’s probably a little bit of a rude girl, but that’s okay with us. She’s equal parts Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ali Wong, and as a result, her novel contains a big jolt of Captain Marvel super power and Baby Cobra super spunk.

Kuhn is probably a great friend too. So it’s no surprise that friendship plays a big part in her novel. Heroine Complex is a big smashing superhero story about Annie Chang and Evelyn “Evie” Tanaka, two women who’ve been best friends since kindergarten.

But as we all know, friendships are complicated things. Especially life-long friendships. Mostly you get along great. But there are times when you want to strangle the other person. And one thing is certain: Friendships can get particularly sticky when one person is a superhero.

Case in point: Eight years ago Annie reinvented herself as Aveda Jupiter (great name btw), the self-appointed protector of San Francisco. “I am a beacon of hope for this city,” she proclaims. She fought otherworldly demons with the ferocity of Taz, the Tasmanian devil, combined with the tenacity of Ms. Pac-Man. She was loud, self-absorbed, image-obsessed, and bossy. When she showed up in public she inevitably looked like an intergalactic cheerleader.

Aveda Jupiter took care of San Francisco, but her best friend Evie took care of her. She was her babysitter, confidante, and therapist. “As Aveda’s personal assistant,” explains Evie, “it was my duty to fulfill her every need and cater to her every whim.”

The pair’s personal dynamic gets turned upside down when Aveda is sidelined due to an unexpected injury. Despite her misgivings, Evie agrees to temporarily masquerade as her super friend until she recuperates. “Of all the people in all the world,” she says with a sigh, “I was probably least equipped to be a superhero. Or even impersonate one.”

Once Evie starts parading around town as a superhero, Heroine Complex takes off like a supersonic invisible jet. Not only does Kuhn have a lot to say about friendships and how they change over the years, but she also addresses familial obligations, and the perils of fame. She even pokes fun at her hometown to great comic affect. Anyone who’s lived in San Francisco for any length of time knows the city has an “astronomical quirk factor” and is ripe for gentle teasing.

Kuhn also has a lot to say about Asian identity and cultural role models. For example, when Evie agrees to become Aveda Jupiter for a brief time, there’s never any doubt that the friends’ ruse won’t work. All Asian women look alike, right? “We’re both Asian,” says Aveda dismissively. “That’s enough for most people.” Never mind that their “Asian-ness” didn’t match (Annie was Chinese and Evie was Japanese). Even in San Francisco, the overriding homoplasy often renders ethnic identity invisible and indistinct.

From start to finish, Heroine Complex is pretty much a perfect novel. It succeeds at being funny and serious at the same time. Plus it’s the first novel in an ongoing series and you can’t beat that. If we had to nitpick, however, we’d have to say that Evie is a little bit of a Mary Sue-type character. But whatever. That simply means the book’s insights are unfiltered and the author’s personal agenda isn’t cloaked in layers of fiction. We’re already looking forward to the further adventures of Annie Chang and Evelyn Tanaka, the Heroic Duo (aka Galactic Warrior Princess and her best friend Rude Fire Girl). Asian lady superheroes to the rescue!

[Heroine Complex / By Sarah Kuhn / First Printing: July 2016 / ISBN: 9780756410841]

Posted in Published in 2016 | Tagged ,

Live! In the Link Age 08.09.16

ActionHeroineWe’re all familiar with the hero’s journey and the concept of the monomyth. It’s a well-worn story template that’s given us The Odyssey, The Hobbit, The Lion King, and Star Wars. Now authors Satine Phoenix and R.K. Syrus have written a book about the female monomyth (The Action Heroine’s Journey / First Printing: June 2016 / ISBN: 9781910890035). Is the heroine’s journey the same as the hero’s? Of course it isn’t. But how is it different? “Women have their own set of needs and strengths and reasons that drive them to move forward in the world,” says Phoenix. “Now is the time for the female lead.” Our review TK.

Publishers Weekly ran a fascinating article recently entitled Leading YA Authors Take a Liking to Licensing. “Bestselling and award-winning young adult and middle grade authors are increasingly creating original fiction tied to pop-culture worlds, especially those with roots in comic books,” says reporter Karen Raugust. This is a trend we like. Pop culture is exploding these days and licensed properties have become a shared mythology and a collective experience. “Fans have a thirst for going deeper and the demand for quality content and quality storytelling has never been greater,” says Andrew Sugerman, a Disney executive for worldwide publishing.

Author Lisa Yee’s excellent Wonder Woman novel came out earlier this year (read our review here) and her new Supergirl novel was released last month. She’s been busy and she’s not slowing down any time soon. The release date of her Batgirl novel is right around the corner. “I am so excited about this book,” says Yee in a recent interview. “Here’s a girl, Barbara Gordon, whose power is that she’s really, really smart. And suddenly she’s given the chance to try to make her dream come true – and become a superhero.” Batgirl at Super Hero High will be available in January of 2017.

Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti are back with the second book in their SuperZeroes trilogy (Swarm / First Printing: September 2016 / ISBN: 9781481443395). The first novel (read our review here) introduced readers to a gaggle of teens with crowd-based superpowers. In the latest book a new threat emerges that mimics the group’s unique (and of-the-moment) powers. Once again it’s time for the Zeroes to become heroes.

Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex) and Paul Krueger (Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge) are charter members of a very exclusive club: Hapa Authors With Debut Urban Fantasy Novels Starring Asian American Protagonists Out Summer 2016. They got together recently to talk about identity, representation, and bad role models. Read their conversation (here).

Author Gwenda Bond confirms that she’s writing a third Lois Lane novel. This is very good news. We enjoyed Bond’s first two books (read our reviews here and here) and we look forward to the next installment, Lois Lane: Triple Threat (available in May of 2017).

According to an announcement at SDCC, author Jason Reynolds is currently writing a Miles Morales Spider-Man novel. “Whether you’re a superhero fan or not, you’ll love this story,” says Sana Amanat, director of content and character development at Marvel.

Nerd fight! Authors C.B. Wright (Curveball) and Percival Constantine (Vanguard) debate the merits of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in a recent podcast. Question: Why are they still yammering about this crazy movie? Answer: Because! They! Cannot! Let! It! Go! Check out the discussion (here).

Plan your next trip to the planet Vulcan with Hidden Universe Star Trek: A Travel Guide to Vulcan (First Printing: July 2016 / By Dayton Ward, Livio Ramondelli, and Peter Markowski ISBN: 9781608875207). Make sure to visit the Fire Plains and the Voroth Sea. And learn key Vulcan phrases like “Nam-tor puyan-tvi-shal wilat” (Where’s the restroom?). All this and more in this essential travel guide to one of the most popular – and logical – destinations in the universe.

Interviews: Bob Proehl, author of A Hundred Thousand Worlds (here). Gene Luen Yang, author of New Super-Man (here).

Reviews: Jerusalem by Alan Moore (here). Supergirl at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee (here). The Conclave of Shadow by Alyc Helms (here and here). Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life edited by Liesa Mignogna (here). Vicious by V.E. Schwab (here). Author Stephen T. Brophy (The Villain’s Sidekick) reviews the Suicide Squad movie (here).

For your reading pleasure: Suicide Squad: The Official Movie Novelization by Marv Wolfman. Deadfall by Thurston Bassett. The Black Lotus: Shadow of the Ninja by Kieran Fanning. How To Save the World by Lexie Dunne. The Undead Pool by Derek Ailes. Super Charged by Franklin Kendrick. On the Eyeball Floor by Tina Connolly. Two Percent Power by Brian Manning. The Neighborhood Watch by Ian Thomas Healy. Nixie and the Forbidden Heroes of the New World by Jedaiah Ramnarine and Jedi Reach. Scattered Screams by C.A. Huggins. Hive Mind: Telepath by Janet Edwards.

Posted in Live! In the Link Age

Lost in Space

GotG CastawaysYou have to admit, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a funky bunch. They consist of a seven-foot-tall ambulatory tree, a raccoonoid, a green-skinned lady, a humorless muscleman, and a Han Solo wannabe. Frankly, we’re surprised Jaxxon or Howard the Duck weren’t part of the regular crew. They would fit right in.

Calling them heroes would be a stretch, however. It’s questionable whether these “Guardians” actually guarded anything, galactic or otherwise. Rocket Raccoon, for one, would rather spend his time gambling. Drax was only interested in destroying and revenging. Peter Quill’s “inability to resist a pretty face” kept his team bouncing from one misadventure to the next. And as the adopted daughter of Thanos, Gamora had a ton of family issues to work out. Only Groot could arguably be called a hero. He was the only one who possessed anything resembling a moral compass.

But one thing was certain; the Guardians were a quirky genre-busting aggregate. And because of their disparate natures they had the potential for outlandish (and otherworldly) humor. On a good day they resembled Sun Ra’s Arkestra with Chewbacca at the microphone. In our opinion, that put Quill and his pals a notch above the Herculoids and the Crystal Gems.

On a bad day, unfortunately, the Guardians were just another dumb collection of superhero ciphers. Take this particular novel, for example. It follows a familiar Guardians of the Galaxy template. The gang quibbles like cranky siblings and they get swept into a wildly preposterous caper. In the end, they settle their differences and abscond with some kind of treasure or reward. Taking a tip from the song “O-o-h Child,” they put it together and they get it undone.

But the success of any Guardians adventure isn’t strictly about the adventure itself. Mostly it’s about a loose confederacy of freebooters and their personal relationships to each other. The adventure is only the petrol that keeps the crew moving forward.

For some reason, the author of this book never fully commits to the characters’ screwy charms. Peter Quill is certainly an unrepentant horndog, Rocket Raccoon can’t escape his Napoleon complex, and Groot continually sheds leaves everywhere he goes. But for a big chunk of this novel, the “castaways” are scrubbed clean of all their idiosyncrasies. That’s too bad.

To make matters worse, the plot is dull as dirt. The crew is marooned on an uncharted planet (“Only about 350 light years off course,” says Quill sheepishly) and in short order they get caught up in a messy civil war. Quill spends his time “fighting and feasting and frolicking” (off the page mostly), and there’s a lot of boring chitchat about military strategy.

Like the Guardians themselves, the locals are flat and unremarkable and there’s not an ounce of nuance in sight. Even the Duke of Vylara, possibly the nicest man since Atticus Finch, doesn’t exhibit any of the duress you’d expect from a magistrate in the throes of a revolution.

In the end, the gang unravels the crisis and solves a big mystery that’s haunted the planet for generations. We admit, it’s actually a nice moment that eschews the typical slam-bang superhero finale. But in no way does it excuse the previous 213 pages.

Maybe next time, Quill, Rocket, Gamora, Groot, and Drax will return to the bad behavior that made them compelling antiheroes. In other words: we’d like to see more canoodling, more destroying, more wiseassery, and more funny business. More guarding of the galaxy would be nice too.

[Guardians of the Galaxy: Castaways / By David McDonald / First Printing: August 2016 / ISBN: 9781772752045]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , ,

The Rise and Fall of the Regional Office

RegionalOfficeIf your daughter suddenly turned into a green hulk or started controlling the weather with her brain, there was perhaps no better place to turn for help than the Regional Office, a place uniquely positioned to empower and strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk young women.

The Regional Office would happily take your daughter and train her to be a superpowered warrior woman. Once indoctrinated into its system, the girls of the Regional Office would be deployed as a barrier of last resort between the survival of the planet and amassing forces of darkness.

For 5,000 years (accounting for space and time travel irregularities), the system worked beautifully. The female fury battalion did a great job of saving the world from destruction, self-annihilation, interdimensional war strikes, and alien forces.

But you couldn’t operate a specialized agency such as the Regional Office without stepping on a few toes. Naturally, there were going to be people who wished for its demise — even people within the organization itself.

The decline and fall of the Regional Office came quite suddenly. But if you were looking for a tipping point, the beginning of the end could be summed up thusly: A man fell in love with a woman. No surprise really. The same could be said more or less about any iconic tragedy (including The Aeneid, The Iliad, Romeo and Juliet, and King Kong).

And so, despite all the explosions and weird science, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! isn’t a shojo superhero slugfest at all. It’s mostly a sad story about love, loss, and loneliness. With superheroes.

Obviously Manuel Gonzales is playing around with genre expectations. His novel is filled with hero and villain archetypes that everybody is familiar with. But he’s also pushing us into a post-modern period where genre tropes can be remixed and subverted. It’s not an easy thing to do. Thankfully, Gonzales is a smart and funny guy. And he’s a darn good writer too. In our opinion, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is exactly what superhero prose fiction needs at this particular moment — even though it’s not about superheroes. Not really.

[The Regional Office Is Under Attack! / By Manuel Gonzales / First Printing: April 2016 / ISBN: 9781594632419]

Posted in Published in 2016 | Tagged ,

Lois Lane: Double Trouble

LLDoubleDownThere’s always something crazy going on in Lois Lane’s life. A few weeks after successfully smashing an online mind control racket (see our review of Lois Lane: Fallout), she finds herself embroiled in a politically charged clone conspiracy. As it turns out, the DNA from her best friend’s 14-year-old sister was used as a serum to create a doppelganger of the Mayor of Metropolis.

Wait. What? Someone took the DNA from a teenage girl and cloned an elected official? A middle-aged man? Why in the world would someone do that? And does that even make any sense?

If your name is Lois Lane it does. Clones, high school girls, deposed politicos, crime bosses, mysterious flying men, and top-secret government agencies – it’s just another day in the life of ace cub reporter Lois Lane. When something weird is going on, her Spidey sense starts tingling. “Finding things out is what I do,” she says.

Here’s the scoop: Two years ago the mayor of Metropolis ran afoul of the city’s crime boss. Instead of using the usual coercion tactics favored by most Mafiosi, Moxie Mannheim cooked up an improbable plot to create a “doppelmayor.” But creating a clone was only the first step in his mad plan. He also needed a way to control his Frankenstein monster. And that’s when Melody Simpson was recruited.

Melody was a twin. And everybody knew that twins had a special preternatural bond with each other. By sampling Melody’s DNA, Mannheim was able to fashion a quantum connection with his clone. And that provided a way for him to exert undo influence in the Mayor’s office in Metropolis.

But Mannheim made one fatal mistake. He messed around with the sister of Lois Lane’s best friend. And nobody gets away with that. Lois was determined to derail Mannheim’s nefarious schemes. “I want to knock him out,” she admits.

Double Down is a terrific sequel to Lois Lane’s debut novel from last year. In our opinion, author Gwenda Bond is totally in sync with her iconic heroine. Lois lives life in the fast lane and doesn’t slow down to accommodate anyone else (even lonely space aliens from Krypton). Only briefly does the doppelmayor deign to compete with her for the reader’s attention. But that’s okay. The clone’s existential ennui is a fine counterpoint to Lois’s unquenchable lust for life. “You’re pretty amazing, Lois Lane,” says her best friend at the end of the novel. How could we disagree?

[Lois Lane: Double Down / By Gwenda Bond / First Printing: May 2016 / ISBN: 9781630790387]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2016 | Tagged , , ,

Hot Stuff

HexedHexed: The Sisters of Witchdown contains everything you’d expect to find in a horror novel. There’s a haunted house, a spellbook bound in human flesh, numerous pocket universes, black magic, one sexy witch, several ugly witches, demonic possession, a couple of exorcisms, grave digging, and reanimation. There’s even a character named Lucifer.

And yet, none of it is spooky in any way. Michael Alan Nelson’s novel is more in line with sunnier fare such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wynonna Earp, and iZombie. The adventures of Luci Jenifer Inacio Das Neves (Lucifer for short) began in the funny pages and her prose debut exists as a happy hybrid of comic book and urban fantasy high jinks.

Things like this really hit our hexerei hot spot. Nelson’s comic book series debuted in 2008 and introduced the world to a bunch of eccentric and willful ladies, including Lucifer (our hero), art dealer Val Brisendine, Raina (the intern), CEO of Graeae Industries Madame Cymbaline, and the Harlot (otherwise known as the Keeper of Secrets). Over the years their intertwining lives have become too big and complicated to be contained in a mere comic book. A prose novel was inevitable.

At the center of it all is young Lucifer. No matter what people think, she’s not a devil, a sorceress, a witch, or a paranormal PI. She’s not even a normal teenage girl. She’s a thief from the slums of Brazil who traffics in magical trinkets and totems. “I keep bad things out of the hands of bad people,” she says. And that basically sums up her job description for the past eight years.

Nelson’s novel revisits the early days of his scrappy heroine. Sort of. We get introduced to Lucifer and all of her friends and foes. But the story has been tousled to provide a fresh remix. This time Lucifer is hired to rescue a high school girl being held captive in a pocket universe of death and witchery. There’s even a whiff of romance in the air. That’s substantially different than how the comic book series started. Lucifer doesn’t even meet her benefactor Val Brisendine until late in the game.

But no matter. Lucifer survives the retcon because she’s a remarkable hero and an indefatigable firecracker. She’s like Buffy Summers and Sydney Bristow (from Alias) with the fighting spirit of an Amazon warrior princess. Because of one early misadventure, she bears the mark of the Keeper of Secrets on her right shoulder (for continuity wonks, the mark appears on her left shoulder in the comics). As a result, her life has become “one giant carnival of magic-covered suck.” That’s bad news for her, but good news for the rest of us.

[Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown / By Michael Alan Nelson / First Printing: May 2015 / ISBN: 9781633880566]

Posted in Published in 2015 | Tagged , ,