The Younger Gods by Michael R. Underwood

yyyyyeeeeesh, almost, but not quite 6 months late. What is wrong with me? Let’s see if I can remember enough to make this work:

The Younger GodsThe Younger Gods

by Michael R. Underwood
Series:The Younger Gods, #1


ebook, 280 pg.
Pocket Star, 2014
Read: November 20 – 22, 2014

Are you quite sure you don’t want to even try to seek cover?” I asked.
“Cover is what stands between me and stabbing things,” [Carter] said by way of response.
Let it not be said to my resident assistant that I constrained my roommate. He was his own man. Even if that man was insane at times.

One of Michael R. Underwood’s most impressive traits is his versatility. We’ve got the fun Urban Fantasy adventures of Ree Reyes, the strange superheroes of Audec-Hal, and now, this darker UF about a cult’s white sheep trying to stop the apocalypse.

Jacob Greene — of those Greenes (apparently) — has come to New York to attend university — and get away from his family and their demon-worshiping apocalyptic cultish practices that will usher in The End of the World as We Know It. He’s had enough of all of it, and is trying to get beyond their teachings, their practices, their . . . murderous ways. It’s more difficult than he expects, especially when his sister comes to town in order to usher in Doomsday.

Jacob finds himself surrounded with a motley crew of allies — mostly in the mold of the-enemy-of-my-enemy — trying to keep his sister from accomplishing her Ultimate To-Do list. Let me tell you, this particular UF version of NYC is full of quite the assortment of magical cultures/subcultures. The rules governing them, the way they interact with each other are one of the strengths of this novel — a nice little bit of world-building that was revealed, not dumped on the reader.

Jacob, understandably, spends a good deal of the book sorting out his identity in light of his family — as well as his feelings for/about them. There are no easy answers waiting for him. It’s here, not his running away from his family, not his attempts to stop his sister, that Jacob finds that bit of humanity that he’s been missing.

Was it still love if the people that loved you were monsters? Did their actions taint everything they did, or was there some humanity in the family? Had they ever really loved one another, or was it a mask, a role that each Greene has played to further the goals of the Bold and awaken the unborn? There was a film, some film, that matched this feeling. I’d heard someone talk about it in class.

Jacob’s ending gambit had me groaning, “Underwood’s not going to do that, is he?” Turns out 1. He did; and 2. It totally worked. I couldn’t believe it. I was expecting a cheesy car wreck, but he nailed it. Note to self: don’t doubt Michael R. Underwood again.

My biggest gripe was Jacob’s language. He starts off with the most formal, stilted dialogue this side of an Austen novel; slang was a foreign language he was trying to adopt. By the end of the novel, however, a lot of that was gone. Now, it’s possible, I just got used to his language — but I don’t think so. Mostly, it was his use of slang that improved dramatically. Now, if it had happened slower — over a book or two, I wouldn’t have noticed — or, more likely, I’d have given Underwood props for it. But . . .this book covers events of a few days, far too quickly for Jacob to pull that off. Still, as far as gripes go . . . that’s pretty small.

It’s not Underwood’s best — but it’s a good start, and I can eventually see me saying something different about the series as a whole. Great magic system, a situation I’ve never encountered in any of the UF I’ve read, a solid group of characters to build from — I can honestly say that I have almost no idea what’s up next for Jacob Greene et al. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

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3.5 Stars

Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

Shield and CrocusShield and Crocus

by Michael R. Underwood

Paperback, 391 pg.
47 North, 2014
Read: June 26 – July 02, 2014

The level of detail in this world is astounding, it reads like it could be the 4th installment or so in a long-running series — the worldbuilding is just fantastic. I don’t know for a fact that Underwood has the history of Audec-Hal, of these races all mapped out for centuries before, and these characters lives detailed going back to birth — but it reads that way. He seems to know them all that well — but best of all, he doesn’t share all the homework he’s done with you, but you can tell he’s done it. The care, the detail, the intricacy, the strangeness of all of this — I mean strange in a good way, that somehow makes total sense in context — is so impressive. I don’t think I can adequately express my appreciation of the imagination and craft here.

We come into this city which is a shadow of itself — no longer in the heyday of its republic, it’s now a city controlled by competing tyrants. Where the citizens live in a sort of fearful servitude, a new generation being raised to know only this reality, and their elders in danger of forgetting what came before. Now where most writers would put a scrappy insurgency here, made up of soldiers, former government officials, and young ideologues, Underwood zigs instead of zags. Instead? We get the Justice League — or maybe the Justice Society (last time I checked, JSA was more welcoming of elderly heroes) — a band of costumed vigilantes doing what they can to destabilize the tyrants and protect the citizenry.

Right there, that’s enough. I’m in. I’m buying the T-shirts, pre-ordering any sequels, seeking out fanart (feel free to direct me to any shirts or art, btw).

The team’s leader, the Fist Sentinel is a Batman/Blue Beetle (Ted Kord)-esque figure. Getting by on his wits, fists and gadgets (tho’ some of his are magic, something that Batman and Beetle couldn’t say). He’s advanced in years, and doesn’t have much fight left in him, but he’s too stubborn/committed to quit. Then there’s the Shield — a sort-of guardian of the city, a mystic mantle that passes to new bearers after the death of the previous — a literal shield, which gives the bearer increased strength, etc. is the mark of the mantle. The current Shield is the Sentinel’s adopted son — think Captain America dosed by magic instead of revolutionary science. There’s a speedster, a woman with super-strength, someone who can control rocks with her mind, someone with mental powers — and a loosely organized group of mundane types who act as spies.

I’m getting into recapping too much here — this should be enough to whet your appetite. And there’s so much more to say in the setup, the details, the people.

Wonderfully told, well-plotted, well-paced. It’s everything I hoped and expected from Underwood.

But.

I didn’t care about these people. I was curious how things would turn out, I was pulling for The First Sentinel and the Shield. But honestly? I didn’t care about them. I know Underwood is capable of making me care about characters — seemingly effortlessly. But something here was off. I’m able to rave about this as a display of care, skill, and imagination — but there’s a distance between the reader and the characters and I just don’t think he bridged it.

A couple of items other things worthy of note: Both before and immediately upon release, I heard a lot of talk about the map in this book — which seemed a bit odd, but then I saw the map. It is so cool. Possibly the greatest map in the history of fantasy fiction — it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. Underwood states, “It all started with a doodle on the back of a grocery list. Now, rendered by a professional, it is amazing. :)” He’s right. The cover art’s pretty great, too.

Basically, this is a book I admire more than I enjoyed. What Underwood constructed here was fantastic, I just couldn’t connect with it emotionally the way I wanted to (the way I can with most of the people in his Ree Reyes series). His care for the world, for his characters is more than evident. He just didn’t do enough to get me to share that. Your results may vary, you might think I’m out to lunch here. That could be — I still really recommend this novel, just not as strongly as I’d expected to.

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4 Stars