PROS:Well drawn characters; excellent action beats; a real underdog superhero resistance vs. oppressive authority through-line; a wonderful cover from Stephan Martiniere.
CONS: New Weird elements do not always quite come through as strongly as they might.
BOTTOM LINE: A very convincing turn into secondary-world fantasy.
Shield and Crocus is a secondary-world urban fantasy novel from Mike R. Underwood in which Wonlar, an old, seemingly humble storyteller, tells stories to children to pass his days. But old storyteller is only a secret identity. Wonlar is really the superhero called First Sentinel. First Sentinel suppresses the one terrible superpower he has, but he uses intelligence, knowledge, scouting of one’s enemies and a lot of gadgetry and tricks to face off against his evil foes.
This is no ordinary story of a superhero. First Sentinel lives in Aubec-Hal, a secondary-world urban metropolis built-in the decaying skeleton of a long ago fallen Titan. A number of humanoid fantasy races live and work there, and suffer under the tyranny of five horrible villains who deposed the Senate decades ago and rule pieces of the city. They terrorize the populace and squabble with each other. First Sentinel stands against their unlawful, evil rule. And he is not alone either. He has friends, allies and comrades. He has a team of fellow heroes that work together to try to protect the citizenry from the tyranny under which they suffer. A team of special people with special abilities defending the city, trying to find ways to free it or at least give it hope. These defenders of the population of the city call themselves the Shields.
In Shield and Crocus, the characters, from Wonlar on down, are well-rounded and complicated, both living up to and trying to rise amongst the various aspects of their culture and social class. These characters are far and away the best thing about the novel. While the various invented fantasy races help provide a shorthand for what each of the members of the Shields are like, the heroes — articularly First Sentinel — transcend these alien categories. Each of the major heroes have well-drawn character arcs and have opportunities for change and growth. The villains, most of whom are off-screen altogether, are more archetypal than they are fully fleshed characters. The henchmen of the villains, fortunately, get more face screen time as they come into conflict with the heroes plans and goals.
Significant aspects of the heroes here (and the villains and their henchmen) undeniably have clear parallels to famous superheroes. In a way, Shield and Crocus poses the scenario of a secondary-world Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America and the Flash teaming up to be a guerilla resistance fighting against a tyranny that includes Ultron and the Joker. Untangling the geeky reflections and refractions (and there are many more for the observant than even these to be found) is one of the joys of reading the novel.
The action beats, a highlight of Underwood’s work, come through here in spades. Having an active guerrilla resistance against a quintet of supervillain overlords means that the author can, and does, bring the action whenever the novel’s pacing threatens to flag. The three-part set piece at the end of the novel, as the Shields’ desperate plans cause them to have to split up and go after three targets at once, is a masterwork of intercutting the action between the three locales, pacing the events with a practiced hand and never letting the reader down.
Aubec-Hal doesn’t quite come through as a New Weird setting quite as well as one of its obvious inspirations, China Miéville’s New Crobuzon. The author does try to mine similar territory and add some of his own elements to the mix (like reality warping storms, a really nice touch). However, the “resistance versus the tyrant overlords” feels much more like “four-color superhero resistance versus evil overlords”, set into a secondary-world fantasy city. Even with some of the odder elements of Aubec-Hal, the city never quite gels. This is not to say that Aubec-Hal is not a distinctive setting for the Shields, the Tyrants and those caught between them. Aubec-Hal is a wondrous place, with many strange corners and facets, and excellently rendered. I was somewhat more reminded of cities like Scott Lynch’s Camorr with the remnants of long ago buildings and structures sitting cheek-by-jowl with newer construction. Or, perhaps given the elevated trains, an analogy to Brooklyn with a crazy quilt of old and new, might be a better match.
I had wondered whether the author’s skill and proficiency at urban fantasy would transfer to a vastly different environment. I am pleased to discover that they have. The blender-on-high genre elements dropped into Aubec-Hal, particularly its heroes and villains, show that, although this is a secondary-world fantasy, the author, interested in many geeky things, is not afraid to mix those interests here as well, while keeping holding on to his sense of character, entertaining action and pacing.