Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

The generally accepted definition of "high concept" is an artistic work that can be pitched with a simple but succinct premise. Some examples (from TV Tropes) to help you:

  • A 13-year old boy wishes he was a man. (BIG)  
  • A man is forced to live the same day over and over again. (GROUNDHOG DAY)
  • A man is forced to live the same alien invasion over and over again. (EDGE OF TOMORROW)
  • Aliens invade the Earth and ruin the 4th of July. (INDEPENDENCE DAY)
  • A group of roughnecks have to save the earth from a meteor. (ARMAGEDDON) 
  • Napoleanic Wars...but with dragons. (TEMERAIRE)
  • Boy wizards fights the evil wizard that killed his parents. (Do I really need to?)
You get the point.

Shield and Crocus is a high concept idea that is executed brilliantly and completely satisfying. A high fantasy team of super powered rebels fights for good in a strange city ruled by evil tyrants. There is so much I loved about this book that I'm really not sure where to start.

If you follow my reviews, you know that I love genre mash-ups and Underwood had crammed multiple genres into one volume. He most obviously plays with the massive moving pieces in the genres of high fantasy and superhero books. Imagine cramming the JLA/Avengers into Westeros and that's what we're talking about. I'm going to get into the world building in a minute, but he deftly handles the difficult job of managing to straddle these two genres with an amazing level of skill while also playing with several other genres a little smattering of horror, steampunk, gangster and suspense as well. Never once does any of it feel forced or cobbled together, it's a coherent story that works on it's own.

Playing with recognizable tropes made this a fun read as I tried to piece together the inspirations and allusions to the characters Underwood created and how he came to choose them. He managed to make the Green Lantern concept cool, something that DC still struggles with while injecting something different into the Batman archetype. His villains, the newsworthy named oligarchs (tyrants), are just as much fun to figure out as the heroes that extend beyond the epic fantasy genre into gangsters, artificial intelligence and even corporate intrigue. The Smiling King is appropriately creepy and brilliant and I wish there was more of him while COBALT makes Ultron look like a pussy cat. Our heroes, beyond The First Sentinel, a little cardboard-y at times, but they are all given enough to do and their own stories that shakes out by the end of the book they are starting to be recognizable beyond the archetypes that they represent.

The plot is tight and well planned. We're coming in to the story at just the right time when any story should be told: a tipping point. Underwood nails this feeling throughout the story and you can tell while this "rebellion" has been going on for a long time, there is something different when we pick up the story that is going to necessitate change in the world. A lot of authors don't make this a point and that often stops me from reading. I ask, "Why now?" and then get bored when there is no answer. Underwood implies a lot to keep a lot of the mysteries of the world mysteries which helps moves the story forward and leaves me with questions...good, important questions like "Now what?"

The world building is exquisite. Less Westeros and more the world of Locke Lamora, the enormous city of Audec-Hal is a fantasy version Coruscant and it's bloody brilliant. From the layout of the city to the hints of the greater world., Underwood has created a memorable world that breathes and demands a wider view of. The races are interesting and unique, if not a little confusing at times, but they all made sense in the context of the world. The threads concept of the Ikanollo got confusing at times and my ability to look up what the threads meant because of my eARC might have led to that since it was difficult for me to flip back to the glossary then back to the page I was on without losing my page.

This was another 5 star review for me and a fantastic and unique fantasy novel.

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