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.
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.