Shield and Crocus

Shield and Crocus - Michael R. Underwood

(I got a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

3.5* for an interesting read. Quite special at first: I must admit I was expecting more classical fantasy, yet this novel deals in fact more with superheroes in a fantasy world than with a typical "band of brothers" à la Robin Hood. So, with this in mind, it depends on the reader's take on such stories: if superheroes aren't your thing, getting into Shield and Crocus might be difficult. For instance, the characters have their normal identities and their heroes' identities, which can be confusing in the beginning before you get used to Wonlar being also called First Sentinel, Rova being Sapphire, and so on. (Of course, I only noticed the presence of a glossary at the end after I had finished reading the novel. The beauty of ebooks on a Kindle app on a smartphone...)

The story's set in an intriguing city by the name of Audec-Hal, a city that developed within the skeleton of a fallen Titan, twenty miles from head to toe. Its inhabitants live in his ribcage, along his legs and arms, streets are called "veins" as if they were still carrying his blood, and so on. Some fifty years ago, it was protected by the City Mother, a being whose power was however enslaved by a tyrant; since then, the faith and compassion bestowed on the inhabitants have turned to fear and servitude. The place is also regularly stormed by, well, literal storms (Spark-storms), possibly magical in origin, since they turn people and even buildings into strange things, mostly living. The lucky ones end up with couple of physical changes and/or a specific power; the others lose their humanity, so to speak—the people of Audec-Hal are humanoid in looks and behaviours, but their races aren't called "human". Six of them dwell in the city, all with their specific characteristics: the fast (and fast-aging Pronai); the Ikanollo, who can see the threads of emotions bonding people (oh the possibilities); the Freithin, created through alchemy to serve as slaves, empowered with empathy with their blood-kin; the Jalvai, who control stone; the Millrej, sharing features with animals (bear-kin, fox-kin...); and the eyeless, mouthless Qava, who feed on thoughts and communicate and feel through telepathy and telekinesy.

This may seem complicated, and it was in the beginning, but the novel's detailed enough in its descriptions to make it clear after a couple of chapters. At least, I didn't find it so complicated that I had to stop reading or check the glossary (as said, I didn't even notice there was one). It was imaginative enough to my liking, and different from the usual elves-like, dwarves-like, and others-like species seen in fantasy in general.

In fact, the diversity is one of the reasons I liked this novel. Three of the six Shields are women, two of them are an item... and it just "is." Not a major plot point, not a plot device, not a way of passing a message. I didn't feel any judgemental attitude nor any preaching to the choir, which is pretty refreshing, and fits with my own take on people in general. (I consider people first as human beings, not as gendered beings. This is exactly how it felt here.) What mattered were those heroes' strength, their ideas, their fight, their wishes for a better city for their fellow inhabitants. Species, gender, sexual orientation: those weren't important, just background elements that happened to be, and didn't take precedence on more intrisic, fundamental qualities.

The "super-hero fantasy" aspect beckons for an action-filled narrative (told mostly from First Sentinel's, Sapphire's and Aegis's points of view); however, political undertones still permeate the story, in that five tyrants seized power decades ago, are keeping the city under their thumb, and are trying to gather for a summit that, if it succeeds, would make their stranglehold on Audec-Hal even stronger that before. They're all vying for power, and are definitely not above striking alliances only to backstab their new allies at the first opportunity; on the other hand, the six Shields have to take their moves into consideration, anticipate, and as always in such cases, sometimes you're victorious, and sometimes you get played. Consequently, although action and fights still make up two thirds of Shield and Crocus, the story's a little more complex than "a group of heroes fight crime/one evil overlord". This is something I tend to appreciate, especially since the Shields have to plan around, and are sometimes forced into moves that lead to loss of life (they can't be everywhere to save the people who support them).

Speaking of the tyrants: the Smiling King. I so, so want to call this guy Hastur. Or the King in Yellow. Or something to that extent. I have no idea if it was the author's intent, it's just the way he resonated with me.

The writing was somewhat redundant. I didn't have any problems when it came to picturing the city and the fights, but regularly, I found the style repetitive, probably because of names/nicknames that were dropped too often. (You can only read "First Sentinel" so many times in two paragraphs.) The book could've done with some tightening in that regard.

Another thing: the story didn't leave that much room for character development, and I would've liked to see a little more of this as well. Mostly because of what revolution-related themes tend to involve: people dying. And their death usually impacts me more when I've gotten to know those characters first, not just see them in action. It's not a big turn-off in this specific story, but it's worth mentioning.

Although it seems like a standalone for now, the ending is open enough for a follow-up, so if there's one, I'd gladly pick it. A few things were left wanting in my opinion—not enough to diminish my enjoyment of the story, just enough to make me wonder. Fahra's existence, among other things, could pave the way to some interesting scenario about the Spark-storms. I'd also like to know more about the Titans, the storm's origin, the world outside Audec-Hal. (As a microcosm, it works fairly well; only I tend to be curious about what's outside "pocket-worlds" in general, so to speak.)

To be honest, I think this novel would shine more as a graphic novel/comics. Nevertheless, it wasn't such an easy mix to come up with at first; it's imaginative; and as it is, I still enjoyed it.