Michael Underwood‘s Shield and Crocus is an alternate world urban fantasy which contain a whole cast of characters as villains, good guys, and semi-innocent bystanders. The geography of the city, Audec-Hal, is that of a humanoid giant god, the species are varied from the blue-skinned giant Freithin to the yellow-skinned Ikanollo where all of the men look alike and as do the women. The different races have various skills and, too top it all off, there are spark storms which alter the citizens for Audec-Hal to give them yet more individualistic funky powers. The heroes are the Shields and the villains are a cartel of criminals, with lots of in-fighting, who took over control of the city (and the City Mother) 50 years ago. Each run a district of the city. [Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of the book for an honest review.] As the publisher blurb lays it out:
Now, with nothing left to lose, First Sentinel and the Shields are the only resistance against the city’s overlords as they strive to free themselves from the clutches of evil. The only thing they have going for them is that the crime lords are fighting each other as well—that is, until the tyrants agree to a summit that will permanently divide the city and cement their rule of Audec-Hal.
It’s one thing to take a stand against oppression, but with the odds stacked against the Shields, it’s another thing to actually triumph.
You may know Mr. Underwood from Ree Reyes novels, Geekomancy and Celebromancy an novella Attack the Geek. This book is in a very different vein, more an epic fantasy than a light geeky romp. While it takes place in a city and in a relatively short timespan, it is within a larger historical context and the city is a fairly large place whose denizens are varied. So the temporal and geographic scale come across as quite large. The quest to free the city is daunting and the villains would rival Batman’s.
So besides this astonishing world and epic structure, what sets Crocus and Shield apart? While not unique, it incorporates family, father to son, husband to wife and those interested in becoming one amongst the Shields and their supporters, the Shield-Bearers, more fully and explicitly than most. There is a clear sense of loyalty and sacrifice for each other. It is, in other words, an epic fantasy with heart and soul. Family. By contrast, the top bad guys are utterly self-focused, including to the level of no interest in family.
One of the aspects I really love about this story is that the heroes are not super-heroes. While they have some special skills, either based on their race, being spark-touched or their calling (Aegis), they are not invinsible. Shields have died before them defending the citizens of Audec-Hal and they may die as well. They certainly get hurt and take time to recover. I also hate this about the novel in the sense that I would love to see them magically kick butt. Alas, neither in this world or in Mr. Underwood’s, does it work that way. It makes for a better book and story, just a little tough to sit by and watch (read) what the Shield must endure.
Mr. Underwood does a nice job embedding background within narrative with a rare bout of reverting to flashbacks. His sense of action is keen and the sense of danger is pervasive. His pacing is good, although, for this somewhat dull reader, he packs a tremendous amount of information about the people and the world in his writing. So I’ve reached both the boon and bane of the novel. It is a rich world with complex relationships among people and races. It has a plethora of villains, each with different skillsets (whose lieutenants have their own skills). There is a reason the book contains a map, a glossary and a key to thread colors (this will make sense when you read the book). At least for me, it’s almost too much. I could easily see this novel broken up into a trilogy with some focus on an area and a group with each book. It’s enjoyable as it stands and you don’t need to be intimately aquainted with the Qava and their ability and need to perceive the world through others as they have no sense organs of their own. Fun to know, but if you simply remember their telekinetic power (and some have it stornger than others) then you can follow the book.
So I commend Shield and Crocus to you. While the list of dramatis personae is daunting and the world is complex, your efforts in following it all are well rewarded. Mr. Underwood never loses the drive of the story or the connections among the characters in this world.