Ever since Jaws, summer is the time Hollywood studios release their action blockbusters. If the movie has robots, monsters, superheroes, or magic, odds are, it’ll come out during the summer. Now let’s say you’re walking up to your local theater, and you see this poster:
A lone hero, perched above a city, carrying a shield, and glancing up at a what-Castle-Grayskull-should-have-been palace. Would you want to see that movie? I know I would. In a heartbeat. Well, with Shield and Crocus, everything I love in a summer blockbuster was contained between two covers. I think it’s safe to say that summer is officially here.
You see, Shield and Crocus does feature a shield-bearing hero, as well as an older hero who relies on a belt filled with gadgets and a grappling hook, a sidekick who grows up to inherit a super hero’s mantle, a big blue hero with beastly strength, and a red hero who can move with dazzling speed. It also features a cast of villains that includes robots, mutants, wizards, a smiling madman, and a crime lord. This is territory that is familiar to most nerds, but Michael R. Underwood puts these comic tropes in a blender and sends it on one heckuva spin.
Shield and Crocus takes place in Audec-Hal, a city built among the remains of a titan who fell from the heavens (Just in case the cover doesn’t make it clear, I mean that literally. Readers will travel inside bones and along veins). A once proud city, it has fallen under the dominion of five tyrants. First Sentinel has been fighting to restore Audec-Hal’s for fifty years. His body is breaking down, and he has lost friends and his wife in this struggle. But although his body is wearing out, his passion burns as bright as ever. Alongside a small team of heroes—the Shields of Audec-Hal—(and a network of supporters, safe houses, and sources of intelligence), First Sentinel has a plan to finally overthrow the tyrants and restore the city.
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Much like superheroes, Michael R. Underwood has two identities. By day, he is the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books, but by night (or whenever he has spare time, I assume), he is the author of the Ree Reyes urban fantasy series (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, and Attack the Geek) about magicians who channel the power of popular culture. Although Shield and Crocus is epic fantasy not urban fantasy, there is the same remixing of popular—or at least comics—culture that is perhaps becoming Underwood’s signature. Similarly, Underwood has written another fast, fun, and engaging book.
Shield and Crocus begins with a “spark storm”: an eruption of magic and violence that warps, distorts, and mutates anything and anyone caught in its path. The Shields respond as best as they can, given their limited numbers. But this is only the beginning of the chaos and danger. The tyrants are planning a summit, finally coming together, stopping their infighting, and aligning their interests and security efforts. If the summit is a success, it could mean the end of the Shields. But First Sentinel was touched by the spark long ago, unleashing a powerful ability that also carries high risk. Maybe it’s enough to take down the tyrants, but what will it cost him this time?
Shield and Crocus moves quickly from the opening chapters to the final chapter with plenty of bam-pow action sequences that one would expect from a comic-book-as-novel. But that path is not always the cleanest or most direct. Underwood switches among points of view from chapter to chapter, and due to the similarities between Shields’ hero names and real names, I stumbled once or twice switching back and forth. In a crowded action sequence, it got a little jumbled in my opinion. Additionally, the book contains a few extraneous chapters from the villains’ point of view that introduced elements that never quite paid off or were resolved.
That being said, a few rough edges shouldn’t detract from what was a great way to start my summer reading. Get your popcorn ready and grab a copy of Shield and Crocus. Summer is here, and summer reads don’t come much more enjoyable than this.