Wonder Woman: Peacemaker

WarbringerThe title of Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman novel is tantalizingly provocative. It implies that Princess Diana of Themyscira is being re-imagined as some kind of harbinger of war.

But that’s not the case. Wonder Woman isn’t a “Warbringer” at all. Always and evermore she remains a peacemaker. The title of the book is simply an ambiguous (but catchy) declaration.

There’s no ambiguity once you start reading the book, however. Right off the bat, Diana meets a teenager named Alia Keralis who is a direct descendant of Helen of Sparta. It is Alia, not Diana, who is the Warbringer (note the capitalization). She’s the one who carries the death of the world. “With each breath she takes,” says an Amazon oracle, “she takes us closer to Armageddon.”

In this origin story, there is no Steve Trevor. Alia is the person who inspires Diana to leave Themyscira and begin her hero’s journey. But Trevor isn’t completely missing from the narrative. There’s a nod to his fate during a tour of the island’s armory. On display is a pilot’s jumpsuit riddled with bullet holes that looks like it came from the twenties. In Bardugo’s novel, Trevor didn’t live long enough to cause a blip on William Marston’s radar.

Leaving the island, Diana makes her way to New York where she tries to help Alia stop the ongoing cycle of war. Despite the serious nature of her task, she manages to have a few LOL moments in the big city. She doesn’t eat an ice-cream cone, but she rides the subway (always an interesting adventure for tourists). And she does a little shopping to pick up necessities like Doritos and gummy bears. During her shopping spree, she tucks her magic lasso in a plastic Duane Reade bag.

Forgoing the pleasures of NY, Diana must escort her charge to Greece before the start of the Athenian New Year. If Alia takes a dip in the spring water of Therapne (the resting place of Helen) the cycle of Warbringers will be broken. To complicate matters further, the pair is under attack by disparate factions. Some people want to kill Alia to prevent future wars. And others want to keep her alive in order to facilitate their shady warmongering agenda.

Throughout, Diana is totally committed to Alia. “Sister in battle,” she tells her at one point. “I am shield and blade to you.” But she is also cognizant of her own destiny. She is the only one of her Amazon sisters who hasn’t been tested on the battlefield. She is 16 years old in this novel and she hungers for a chance to prove herself beyond Themyscira track and field events. “What’s my story?” she asks more than once.

The answer to her question comes late in the novel. The world needed a champion, and Diana needed a chance to learn what she was capable of. She broke the curse of the Warbringer, but her story wasn’t over. It had just begun. “She did not know what the future held, only that the world – full of danger, and challenge, and wonder – was waiting to be discovered.”

[Wonder Woman: Warbringer / By Leigh Bardugo / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9780399549731]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Published in 2017 | Tagged , ,

The War of Talents, Part I

TableWolvesThirty-three year old Kim Tavistock is looking for something to do with herself. Recently removed from a newspaper job in the U.S., Kim is back in England and living with her father. It’s 1936 and jobs are hard to find and women are the last in line to get them.

Perhaps in these early days leading up to World War II, Kim might find employ as a spy for King and Country. She does, after all, possess a very unusual talent. Ever since she was 12, she’s been able to inspire people to reveal embarrassing secrets. This “spill talent” made things awkward for potential boyfriends, but it might be useful in espionage endeavors. That’s what Kim is hoping.

Contrary to popular assumptions, however, being a spy isn’t the glamorous career people make it out to be. Kim quickly finds out that it’s a tawdry job, morally wretched and liable to get her killed – especially when she’s attempting to infiltrate a nest of shady Germans promoting their Nazi agenda.

The Germans have a crazy plan to invade England by building a Boom Tube-like conduit across the North Sea. To do this, they’re conscripting a team of metahumans with extraordinary preternatural abilities. The key to the whole thing rests on the shoulders of a high-powered “chorister” who’s able to aggregate Nazi Übermensch for maximum carnage.

Kim is determined to disrupt the oncoming invasion using her unique talent. Like a guitarist endlessly searching for the perfect chord, she’s consorting with Sicherheitsdienst agents looking for the defining spill. She’s a bit naïve but fearless nonetheless. She doesn’t consider herself a superhero, a Valkyrie warrior, or anything so presumptuous, but one way or another she’s going to use her spill skillz to keep England safe.

The years just prior to WWII represent an undeclared shadow war of subterfuge, filled with spies, assassins, powerbrokers, puppet masters, political agitators, disrupters, alchemists, and superheroes. As such, it serves as the perfect milieu for Kay Kenyon’s new alt-history series featuring superheroes with highly unusual and arcane talents. England is lucky to have Kim “Nazi Smasher” Tavistock on its payroll. To be continued in Serpent in the Heather (available April 2018).

[At the Table of Wolves / By Kay Kenyon / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781481487788]

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The Life and Death of Rasputin

GhostsEmpireHow do you kill something that’s already dead? It’s simple. Every zombie, mummy, and vampire knows the answer to that question. Life is the only thing that can defeat death.

But somehow Grigori Rasputin didn’t get cc’d on the memo. In Ghosts of Empire, the self-proclaimed mystic from the early 20th century was orchestrating an attack on London from his icy tomb in St. Petersburg. The mad monk died in 1916, but he stubbornly continued to preside over the vagaries of the universe. “Death was the only constant,” he crowed.

Thank goodness Gabriel Cross (aka the Ghost) was visiting England during Rasputin’s siege. The New Yorker was hoping for a little R&R during his vacation (see Ghosts of Karnak for further details), but he wasn’t the sort of guy to shy away from a coven of Russian wizards making trouble. “The Ghost is part of my life,” explained Cross. “Wherever I go, he goes too.”

Rasputin and his Korschei Corps had inveigled their way into London, bringing with them a dark elemental magic from abroad. Like an album by Iggy and the Stooges, the power they wielded was primal and raw. It was up to Cross, the British Secret Service, and an eight-foot tall perambulatory tree to turn back the invasion. “I’m amazed at our capacity to find trouble wherever we go,” said an exasperated member of Team Ghost.

This is the fourth Ghost novel from author George Mann, and each one has been an enjoyable steampunk/superhero mash-up featuring a “solitary figure of vengeance.” If you like pulp fiction and mysteries with a supernatural twist (like us), you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the ongoing adventures of Gabriel Cross and his crimefighting colleagues.

After an explosive novel-ending kerfuffle, Rasputin was smote by the very elemental forces he claimed to control. He bragged to his enemies that he had mastered death, but in reality all he had done was perpetuate it – inflicting misery upon everyone around him. He was nothing but a living corpse held together by ancient tattoos, pictograms, and sigils. Like every ghoul before him, Rasputin was destroyed by life.

[Ghosts of Empire / By George Mann / First Printing: October 2017 / ISBN: 9781783294183]

Posted in New/Old Pulp, Published in 2017 | Tagged ,

Hocus Pocus POTUS

Flash HocusPocusSuperhero novels are a great platform for metaphor and subtext. Rarely, and for good reason, do authors use their work to comment explicitly on current events. Nobody wants to read a Hulk novel about changes in the E.U. general data protection regulations. That would be ridiculous.

But in The Flash: Hocus Pocus, author Barry Lyga can’t help himself. He throws a little shade at Donald J. Trump. And who can blame him? Even in a world filled with weather wizards, mirror masters, king sharks, and giant sentient gorillas, the reality of President Boss Baby is too much to endure.

Before we get to the Trump burn, we have to back up for a moment. At the beginning of the novel, Team Flash (including all your favorites from the TV show) is slightly bewildered by the arrival of a new supervillain in Central City. Hocus Pocus was a weird anachronistic guy. He dressed like an old-timey magician but carried a magic wand loaded with futuristic tech. He’s called a “criminal mastermind” on the book’s back cover, but that isn’t exactly right. More accurately, he’s like the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz – simply a bully and a bellicose boob.

But he did have one substantial trick up his sleeve. Hocus Pocus could brainwash anyone to do his iniquitous bidding. And what he wanted to do more than anything was take control of Central City. It would be easy. All he had to do was wave his magic wand to convince people that he was worthy of being President Abra Kadabra, No Russian interference or gerrymandering required.

Thank goodness Magic Man wasn’t very bright (“He didn’t seem to understand strategic thinking,” says Barry Allen at one point). Because of his brainwashing powers, Hocus Pocus surrounded himself with bootlickers and brownnosers. He became addicted to applause and flattery. And this was his ultimate folly. “Dude’s obsessed with having people get their worship on,” says Cisco Ramon. “He needs a reality TV show or something.”

Yup, that’s right. Instead of pursuing a life of crime, Hocus Pocus could have been a huge TV star. He could easily have won every season of Survivor, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars. With a flick of his wand, he could have dominated The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. He could have done anything he wanted. “He could even have run for president,” adds Caitlyn Snow. Perish the thought!

[The Flash: Hocus Pocus / By Barry Lyga / First Printing: October 2017 / ISBN: 9781419728150]

Posted in Marvel/DC, Movies/TV, Published in 2017 | Tagged , ,

Totally Spies

Smiths SpySchoolNovels about spies and superheroes often converge in a familiar Venn diagram. Alter egos, covert operations, gadgets, megalomaniacal villains, weapons of mass destruction, and secret lairs are some of the tropes shared by these two genres. If you like entertainment with a dash of adventure and espionage, there’s very little difference between Nick Fury and James Bond, Natasha Romanoff and Elizabeth Jennings, and Bobbi Morse and Emma Peel.

Author Beth McMullen clearly understands the link between spies and superheroes because she’s having a lot of fun with it in her latest book. Seventh-grader Abigail “Abby” Hunter is shocked to discover that her top-tier New England preparatory academy is actually a secret spy school for girls (like Russia’s Black Widow program but a whole lot sunnier). “This place is a secret breeding ground for spies!” cries Abby in disbelief.

Even more shocking, Abby finds out that her mother is a highly regarded secret agent. Her mom even has a very superhero-like name. Jennifer Hunter is known around the globe as Teflon because she can walk into the worst situations and come out clean. She has a reputation for being hard-core and amazing, and her colleagues describe her as Superman and Spider-Man “or some awesome hybrid of the two.”

In fact, throughout the novel, the author freely namechecks a sundry of famous superheroes like Batman, Black Widow and others. Even when she’s not being explicit, she acknowledges her source material.

For example, the motto at Mrs. Smith’s Spy School For Girls is Non tamen ad reddet (“Not to take, but to give back”). It’s basically a fancy way to paraphrase Spider-Man’s memorable and oft-quoted motto. “We strive each day to make the world a better place,” says the school’s headmaster. “We aren’t just about ourselves but rather about the greater good.”

Despite her mom’s rep, Abby herself has no special training or aptitude for spying. One of her teachers even calls her a “chronic user of poor judgment.” But never mind. Now that she knows her pedigree, she’s determined to be the best teenage girl spy she can be (watch out Kim Possible!). After completing her first off-campus assignment, an ally assesses her performance thusly: “You did okay tonight, if we overlook all the parts where you screwed up.”

Things get better (and worse!) before the novel ends. “You’re just like your mom,” says the villain in his final showdown with Abby, “always messing with things that have nothing to do with you.” He’s just a mid-level minion, but he’s right. Even though she was struggling with a severe spy learning curve, Abby was exactly like her mom. “I don’t quit,” she says. Stay turned for further adventures.

[Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls / By Beth McMullen / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781481490207]

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The Unsinkable Dreadnought

SovereignWhen you think about it, superheroes are lousy agents of democracy. Equality? Political freedom? Access to the legislative process? Forget about it. In no way does a crimefighting vigilante with superpowers represent democratic ideology.

“We’re told to pretend that everyone is equal,” says the titular villain in April Daniels’ latest novel. “But excuse me. Some of us can fly! Excellence isn’t celebrated anymore, and it’s suffocating humanity.”

The United States is rotting, says Richard “Sovereign” Garrison. “There are too many problems going unaddressed in our country because of special interests and small-minded politicians. Flabby mediocrity is the order of the day. No civilization can thrive if it insists on strangling its best members.”

But if superheroes aren’t exemplars of U.S. politics, don’t worry about it too much. Supervillains are much, much worse. Garrison, for example, rails against democracy, but his solution is hereditary dictatorship (aka NeoReactionarism). He rejects egalitarianism and embraces monarchism. Freedom and democracy are no longer compatible in his view.

Garrison’s got a crazy plan to promote superhuman supremacy by combining science and magic. “Only people who’ve earned the right to have super powers will get them,” he says during a mid-novel monologue. The best people should have the best powers. No more supervillains, and no more slackers. “It’s not fascism,” says a member of Dreadnought’s entourage. “It’s just a different flavor of shit.”

Part of Garrison’s master plan is to kidnap Dreadnought and steal her powers for himself. She is, after all, the mightiest superhero in the world. Acquiring her super powers would be a major coup for Garrison’s nascent NRx movement.

Danny “Dreadnought” Tozer is a tough nut to crack, however. She’s fought the worst of the worst – metahumans, hyper-tech malware, wizards, and kaiju. She’s been shot with cannons and stabbed with vibroblades. In her debut adventure (read our review here), she hammered the world’s most notorious supervillain. And in the new book, she escapes the torture den of a TERF sorceress (look it up). She may be just a 15-year-old kid, but Dreadnought is undefeatable. “Nobody wins against me,” she says. “Nobody.”

That includes her mom and dad. At the beginning of Sovereign, Danny is going through the painful process of divorcing her parents. Both of them have been shockingly unsupportive of her status as a gay transgender superhero icon. But enough was enough. It was time for Danny to finally cut them loose. If Sovereign and his henchmen couldn’t bring her down, neither could her parents.

It’s not easy being Dreadnought, that’s for sure. Throughout the book she’s pummeled and tortured relentlessly. But after all the bullshit, she finally gets the happy ending she deserves. We won’t spoil the final scene. But we have to say – watching the sun come up over the horizon while floating in space sounds like an awesome first date.

[Sovereign / By April Daniels / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781682308240]

Posted in Published in 2017 | Tagged ,

Johnny Ribkins, Cartographer for Hire

RibkinsThink about all the mutants who weren’t good enough to get into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Remember KwikStep? He was the kid who could put on his sneakers without untying them. And GoGo Kawasaki? She never had to stop at an intersection for a red light.

But do you have to walk through walls like Kitty Pryde to be a superhero? Do you have to have retractable vibranium claws just to be treated with a little respect?

Of course not. Everybody had skills and talents that made them unique, even superheroes with insufficient powers. The trick was to find your path in life and walk the earth with purpose – like the five members of the Justice Committee.

Back in the day, Johnny Ribkins and his super friends traveled around the country staging minor interventions, taking a knee, doing whatever they could to support the civil rights movement. “We were freedom movement adjacent,” said Ribkins in hindsight. The Justice Committee didn’t have any special training or facility; they just wanted to do the right thing. “We were fighting for freedom, trying to uplift people, and change the world.”

But nobody ever confused the Justice Committee for the Justice League. Ribkins and his gang had superpowers, but they couldn’t change the Speed Force like Barry Allen or alter reality like Flex Mentallo. Instead, they could project the illusion of beauty (Simone), spit firecrackers (Bertrand), flash a winning smile (Winston), and administer justice like a hammer (the Hammer).

For his part, Ribkins had sublime cartographic skills. For seven years, his maps set the agenda for the Justice Committee. Even Charles Xavier would agree, that was a pretty cool mutant power – especially if you had to be at the right place at the right time. You didn’t want to be late for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, after all.

It’s too bad Ribkins never truly understood his esoteric power. He could draw a map like ringing a bell, but he never found his personal path in life. And now, at the age of 72, he was driving around Florida trying to find it.

Author Ladee Hubbard has done an amazing thing with her debut novel. She’s given us a story about history, racism, personal identity, human potential, complicated family relationships, and superheroes. Imagine if W.E.B. Du Bois created Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Just think how great that would have been.

In the end, Johnny Ribkins gets a little assistance from his 13-year-old niece Eloise. She was the NextGen of Ribkins metahumans, and her nascent superpower would ultimately help her Uncle find the peace he was looking for. “I can see how stuff gets put together,” she told him, “from beginning to end and all points in between.” Instead of following a vague map with a crazy circuitous route, the “Talented Ribkins” finally figured it out. Right path, wrong path, it didn’t matter. It was his path all along.

[The Talented Ribkins / By Ladee Hubbard / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9781612196367]

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