The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack

Subtitle

Super Heroes

Supers

Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

The DC Icons series offers a glimpse of prominent figures in the DC universe before they have quite become the heroes (and villains?) the fans know. They are, presumably, geared toward a young audience, and thus far have been very effective. It’s also an obvious opportunity to retcon the subject of each novel for new audiences.


In Soulstealer Maas makes a couple of daring moves to set the stage for her story—she decides to link Catwoman’s origins to the League of Assassins (it’s possible that this is actually part of Catwoman’s background, but if so, I had never heard it before) and much more controversially she chose to set Catwoman against Batwing—not Batman—bringing all the tension and attraction from the original relationship to the new one. To do this she takes Batman out of Gotham on a secret mission and leaves the defense of the city totally in the hands of Luke Fox/Batwing.


Catwoman, fresh out of her training with the League, has come to Gotham with an agenda and begins carefully setting both Gotham’s elite society and its underworld on edge through a series of daring robberies. She hooks up with a young Poison Ivy and through her with Harlequin—who’s price for making it a trio of crime is the freeing of Joker from Arkham Asylum.


Batwing and the Gotham PD grow increasingly frustrated by their inability to stop Catwoman’s very public crimes. Yet something is not right in the background. The League of Assassins begins appearing, but they are trying to kill Catwoman, not support her plans. As law and order becomes ever more tenuous in Gotham it begins to become apparent that Catwoman is playing for much larger stakes than anything in a bank vault or around the necks of Gotham’s elites at the next gala.


This is an increasingly emotional story as the reader gets a glimpse into the woman behind the cat mask and heroes and villains both are forced to confront their biases and figure out where they really stand.

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

I really enjoy superhero novels. I’ve probably read more than 200 of them—some amazingly good and some worthless pieces of excrement. This one ranks among the best. It is marketed as a Batman novel, but Batman doesn’t exist yet in this book. Instead we have eighteen year old Bruce Wayne who has not yet settled on his obsession to fight crime as the Batman. Wayne has just come into his billions when he tries to help the police in a high speed chase by using his sports car to stop the bad guy. They thank him by charging him with interfering with the police and he is sentenced to probation and community service—which he has to complete mopping the floors in Arkham Asylum. The novel than takes a turn toward Silence of the Lambs or Broken Time. An eighteen year old murderer, believed to be connected to the notorious Nightwalkers, will speak to Bruce when she’s refused to speak to anyone else. So the detective in charge of Bruce’s probation tries to use him to draw her out and the whole situation gets out of control.


This was a hard book to put down. While Bruce at eighteen is not what I imagined, he was a likeable character I could relate to. And having people like Harvey Dent showing up in the book really added to the enjoyment. This is Bruce before he’s lost to his life’s mission as the Batman and we get to watch him move closer to that vocation as the novel progresses. Hats off to author, Marie Lu, on a novel very well done.

Modified by Kat Stiles

Let’s start with a little truth in advertising. Modified is neither a short story nor a novel, it is the opening chapters in a larger story. It is not the first book in a series in the traditional sense. There is no resolution of the plot nor a comfortable stopping point for the reader to wait at until they get the next book. Presumably if you bought the boxed set you would get the equivalent of a novel. I don’t know. I haven’t decided if I’m going to invest in more of the series yet.


It’s unfortunate that the author chose to break her novel up in this way, because the plot to this point was enjoyable, if still in its infancy. Our heroine, Kate, is kidnapped for one night. We don’t know what happened to her during this time (nor does she) but she apparently gets a superpower given to her and has to figure out what it is, how to control it, and how to stop other people from taking advantage of her to abuse it. Most of that brief description is in the future of the series, but Kate is a strange but likeable heroine and Stiles does a decent job of introducing her and her problem. There is a small supporting cast also taking shape for what looks to be a light-hearted (if dark) super hero story. Modified has the potential to be a lot of fun.


Wearing the Cape #1 by Marion Harmon

The first time I read this novel I had gotten a free copy of what turned out to be only the first few chapters of the book. I read a lot of free novels and unfortunately most of them do not leave me wanting to go out and find another of the author’s works. Wearing the Cape was different. The minute I finished it I got online and bought the full novel and then I just kept reading Harmon’s series until I finished all of them.


I like super hero stories. I’ve been reading them since my mother gave me my first comic books the summer before I entered fourth grade. Before that I’d watched the original Spiderman cartoon and the Super Friends on television. Many thousands of comics, a whole bunch of movies and television shows, and maybe two-to-three hundred super hero novels later I feel like I’m an expert on the genre. So it isn’t lightly that I say that Harmon’s Wearing the Cape is easily one of the three or four best superhero series out there.


It’s a series for people who take their supers seriously. Like all the other superhero novels out there, Wearing the Cape still demands a certain level of suspended disbelief, but there is a gritty realism in the way this world is envisioned that goes well beyond standard super hero fare—especially that coming out of the genre leaders at Marvel and DC comics. Yet all of that gritty realism doesn’t get in the way of genuine super heroics and the fun that comes from reading about them.


Hope Corrigan is an eighteen year old woman about to start her first year in college when a terrorist bomber drops an overpass on her and a bunch of other people driving on the highway. By a fluke of luck, she’s not immediately killed by the falling concrete, but she’s worried about all the other people around her and her need to help them generates a superhero breakthrough in her that launches her into her career as a superhero called Astra.


Chicago, where the series is based, is home to America’s premier superhero team, The Sentinels, and to Atlas, the world’s first superhero. They have a lot of experience training new supers and the Sentinels, like all super teams, has a legal status working with the local authorities to A) help them control supervillains and B) work as emergency response personnel during natural and man-made disasters. (You know, like a terrorist dropping an overpass onto the highway below.)


Astra’s training gives us the opportunity to painlessly discover how the superheroes function in society. No, that’s not fair, it’s not just painless it’s downright exciting. Superheroes are celebrities with fans, magazines, and clubs devoted to them. There are also movies, television shows and merchandising. They need insurance to cover the civil suits that happen when they’re called in to take down supervillains. There are government agencies that work with them and keep an eye on them. And all of this truly critical world building seamlessly flows from the text while Hope/Astra deals with the completely believable stresses of an incredibly difficult job. And that’s just the day to day problems of a superhero—the equivalent of Spiderman stopping a bank robbery on his way to the Daily Bugle. The actual mega-villain activity is worthy of the best story arcs Marvel and DC have ever put on paper.


To close I’d like to say a few words about the audio version of this novel which I just had the pleasure of listening to. I’ve read the kindle version two or three times, but the audio brings a whole new level of enjoyment to the story. You see, even though you know Hope’s just eighteen, you can forget that at times while reading, but not with a capable narrator like K. F. Lim. She gets the young Hope’s voice perfectly and the giggles and tongue-tied stutters and a dozen other little narrative effects really drive home that this is a teenager we’re reading about. It brings Harmon’s story to life even more effectively than he did.

Wearing the Cape 2 Villains Inc

Villains Inc picks up a few months after Wearing the Cape ends. Astra is in a bad way becoming a source of tabloid headlines over a few missteps she has made between books. None of these are particularly bad things from the reader’s perspective but it’s easy to imagine the tabloids twisting facts to sell some papers. Add to that that Astra is still dealing with having lost Atlas, the love of her life, to the Ring attack at Whittier Base.


Then Godzilla strikes—or at least a Godzilla—and we are immediately reminded why Harmon is so good with his superhero worldbuilding. A green terrorist is trying to save the environment by planting Godzilla eggs in major water sources near big cities. New York and Tokyo have already been hit, now it’s Chicago’s turn and boy is it exciting—even though it’s just a teaser to introduce the new book.


The real plot revolves around a mysterious shape-changing thief and the super villains trying to kill him (or her). The Sentinels discover that Villains Inc (a supervillain enforcer group) has been resurrected by the Chicago mob and now the mob is in a civil war as members of Villains Inc try to take over. Chicago’s Sentinels are trapped in the middle and the population is furious that they can’t stop the villains from fighting. There is plenty of excellent action and a couple of great new supers added to the mix and once again Astra is forced to grow. This is an excellent story all around.


I listened to the book in audio this time and was disappointed by the change in narrators. Perhaps I would feel differently if Caitlin Kelly had read both of the books, but K. F. Lim’s reading of Wearing the Cape was a hard act to follow that I was halfway through Villiain’s Inc before I started to warm to Kellyl’s characterizations. It’s not that she’s not a competent reader, but it’s almost always a bad decision to switch narrators midstream. Lim had brought these characters to life for us and now we had to get acquainted with them all over again. It was as if we had slipped over into a parallel universe and as a result all the characters were just slightly off from what we were expecting.   

Wearing the Cape 3: Young Sentinels by Marion Harmon

One of the many things Marion Harmon does very well is develop ultra-powerful super villain threats. This time the book opens with the Green Man—a super-powered eco-terrorist with the ability to make plant life grow and spread at remarkable speed. So new trees essentially “charge” across the parks, break up roads, grab and kill anyone in their paths, wreck property, overturn cars and basically try and turn Chicago into a forest. Stopping the growth across a front more than a mile wide and rescuing all the people involved would tax the abilities of the Justice League or the Avengers and it’s a great challenge for Harmon’s Sentinels. But it’s not the only difficulty they face in this story.


The Wreckers, a new group of super villains, has come to Chicago where they are targeting for execution known members of the Paladins—an anti-supers extremist group. The Wreckers powers are top-notch and dangerous and they’re not afraid of causing a lot of collateral damage in their attacks. To make matters worse, their appears to be a connection between the Wreckers and the mysterious mass murderer called the Ascendant, further complicating the Sentinels’ problems.


While all of this is happening, Blackstone decides to increase the fire power of the main team by recruiting a group of trainee heroes to be led by Astra. Technically, these new heroes-in-training will be blocked from most combat operations, but in the insanity that has become Chicago that is often impossible. With the city in constant danger the Sentinels are going to need all the help they can get to win this face off.


Enriching all the action is the growing cast of very strong characters and intriguing personal relationships that are Harmon’s bread and butter. One of the young Sentinels is a Merlin-type super who believes she is Ozma of Oz. Grendel is a shape changer who gained his powers the day he lost his family in the Ascendant’s first mass homicide. Megaton’s family has deserted him because they’re afraid of his new superpowers. These backdrops create intriguing problems for Astra to deal with that can’t be simply punched and kicked into submission.


Finally, in my review of Villain’s Inc I expressed some unhappiness with the change in narrator from K. F. Lim to Caitlin Kelly. I still like Lim’s excellent narration of Wearing the Cape, but Kelly has found her groove in the series and I was completely comfortable with her storyteller’s voice. She shows a lot of talent in bringing the large cast to life and I look forward to hearing her read the next book in the series.

Wearing the Cape 6: Team Ups and Cross Overs by Marion Harmon

One of the hallmarks of the great super hero series is the team up with other heroes and another is the cross over either into other superhero universes or into alternate versions of the hero’s reality. In Team Ups and Cross Overs, Harmon gives us a lot of each. These are quick short stories that not only give Astra the chance to rub shoulders with heroes from other authors’ imaginations but to learn just how important her efforts have been by showing her what would have happened if she’d died back in the beginning of the series.


I wasn’t familiar with any of the other authors’ superhero worlds, but they were self-explanatory enough that I had no problem jumping into the action. Probably the best short story in the collection was Grimworld in which Astra discovers a reality in which she died at the Whittier Base Attack and so wasn’t around to stop the EMP attack that was the focus of the Omega Night short story. That future is bleak and it was fascinating to watch Astra deal with the tragedy that had become the planet.


While I encourage every fan of the series to read this book, I also note that it is the weakest of the series. In my second reading of the collection, I found that many of the short stories no longer interested me at all. Obviously, that’s not good. And it’s not something I’ve found with the other novels. Yet, I am still glad Harmon experimented with this multiple realities event and I think you will be too.

Wearing the Cape 7 Recursion

Marion Harmon is one of the two or three best superhero novelists out there, and his Wearing the Cape series is at the top of the genre. Recursion is the sort of novel that can only be written with several books in the series to back it up. The story starts a month after the end of the first novel but things aren’t quite the same as we remember them. There are extra people on the team who weren’t there at the start of book two and Astra starts getting called into activities earlier than she was the first time around and everything feels a little off. Then Astra starts to recover pieces of her memory that come from three years in the future—except that she knows classic time travel is impossible—you can’t change your own past.


What follows is a wonderful reworking of the first several novels and a clever reworking of the past to make everything that happened the first time make more sense and connect it in a clever conspiracy to break democracy in the United States. It’s a truly creative reworking of the past that is brought together in an even more imaginative explanation for how all of this happened in the first place. This is a tour de force of the Wearing the Cape series and an absolute delight to read.



Batman and Psychology by Thomas Langley

This is a fun overview of Batman and much of his supporting cast of friends, heroes and villains from the slant of trying to understand the characters through the modern psychology. I found the overview of the character’s history in comics, television and movies the most interesting part of the book with insights from the various authors and artists who have worked with Batman to be also highly interesting. There is a section where Langley explores how the Comics Code interfered with the development of Batman and resulted in Catwoman being exiled from the book for about a decade that was particularly fascinating. If you like Batman you will probably enjoy this book.



The Rules of Supervillainy by C. T. Phipps

This is a lighthearted romp through the mind of a supervillain. It’s a little slow getting started, but the story quickly grabs holds of you and enmeshes you in the problems of a man who is determined to be evil—sort of—all the while keeping the love of his wife who wants to be a hero. Throw in two ex-girlfriends—one a proud henchwoman and the other the greatest superheroine of the age—and “Merciless” will have you laughing at his antics. Things eventually get serious when mega-villainous (we want to destroy the world) type bad guys get brought into the plot. This story would have failed if Phipps took his story seriously, but since he doesn’t, give it a try and have some fun.




The Games of Supervilliainy by C.T. Phipps

The absurdity continues but with a darker twist as Merciless keeps finding himself on the wrong (that is to say the “right”) side of the battle between good and evil. There are a lot of laughs in this novel even as the situation goes from dark to darker and the ending sets the stage for an even bleaker sequel. It’s to Phipps credit that he can make these situations humorous.  



The Secrets of Supervillainy by C.T. Phipps

Phipps obviously adores superhero comics and this series is a loving satirical homage to them. In this third installment, Merciless is trying to find a way to bring his wife’s soul back into her vampiric body while dealing with the hilarious mess of his life. To make matters worse, a massive conspiracy to take over the world is underway and the conspirators have decided they need to take him out first. Naturally Merciless, who insists he’s not a hero, is coming up with reasons to stop the bad guys.


I enjoy these novels, even if the first three have been a little too slow moving for my preference. My favorite parts are always the flashback scenes to Merciless’ college days when he’s unknowingly dating Ultragoddess, the greatest heroine in the world. They are always quite humorous and masterfully capture that nostalgic feeling old comics can bring to mind. The other thing I love about these books is how Phipps brings all the great themes and plot devices of comics into play in frankly ridiculous fashion. It just makes them fun.





Spiderman: The Lizard Sanction by Diane Duane

I’ve listened to the audio dramatization of this book at least a dozen times over the years. It’s thoroughly enjoyable with decent voice acting and great sound effects. The plot is a perfectly credible Spiderman adventure. Duane has a good grasp of the characters and writes a good fight scene. I have always found it unfortunate that Marvel didn’t produce more of these dramatizations of their novels (there were quite a few of these published back in the 1990s) as it’s a great way to get your super-hero-fix. It’s especially sad that they didn’t do the whole Duane trilogy so we can hear the whole story.



So Not a Hero by S. J. Delos

Supervillain books seem to be the rage these days and this one does it better than most. “Crushette” is trying to go straight and not getting a lot of support from anyone. She used to be the girlfriend of Dr. Maniac—one of the biggest bad guys in the U.S. but after a two year stint in prison she’d trying to leave the villain life behind and become a typical American—except she’s nine hundred pounds, super strong, mostly invulnerable and unable to stop getting into trouble. The story really picks up when she’s recruited onto a superhero team, the unimaginably named, “Good Guys”, and has to start confronting other people’s expectations and the dirty secrets of her past. This one is worth your time.


Some Kind of Hero by S.J. Delos

I quite enjoyed the first book in this series, but this sequel didn’t move me in the same way. First the good: I like the world Delos is building with its mix of heroes, villains and government agencies. It very easily could be a four color comic book which is a lot of what I look for in a superhero novel. On the other hand, Kao is suffering from two distinct problems in this novel. First, she is way too powerful and Delos doesn’t know how to challenge her at this power level. As a result I very rarely felt any tension at all in her fights. Second, and far more important, Kao caught a case of genuine stupidity and it affected her ability to fight the bad guys. (Maybe she had this problem in the first book and I didn’t notice, but it is glaringly obvious here.) Kao is super powerful, but her mind-numbing arrogance lets the bad guys get away again and again and again. I lost track of how many times she approached the bad guys, stopped to spout melodramatic nonsense at them, and as a result they got away to continue developing their nefarious schemes. Kao can fly, she’s very fast, and she’s super strong and highly invulnerable. Almost every time she surprises the bad guys and I think every single time she gives away this advantage so she can stop and tell them how stupid they are being for acting evil around her. And she never learns from her mistakes. Spider-man sprouts all kinds of great one liners at the bad guys, but he’s bouncing around like a super ball avoiding their attacks and smacking them all over the place while he does so. Not Kao. She just stands or hovers and spouts off and it didn’t work for me. (She also fails to share critical evidence which would prove to the heroes the identity of the bad guy, but that’s a whole different kind of stupidity.) Add in two highly depressing epilogues and I think I’m done with this series.




Super Sales on Superheroes by William D. Arand

This was the strangest take yet on the superhero genre. Felix is a totally unlikeable, self-centered, creep with a very low key superpower and dreams of doing better. He lives in a city just taken over by a major supervillain that is working under what we might describe as villainous laws. Felix is barely scraping by when he attempts to buy a hunk of exotic metal he thinks he might be able to use his power to turn into gold. Instead of metal, Felix accidentally buys an enslaved superheroine who was nearly tortured to death. He discovers that owning her somehow enhances his own powers and sets himself on a journey to buy all the superheroes and supervillains he can. Along the way, he starts fixing (i.e. healing) them and improving their power sets, which also magically increases his own strength. And along the way, he and his enslaved superheroes and supervillains start influencing each other in pretty interesting ways. I don’t know quite how to categorize this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and happily await the sequel. Very original.



Super Sales on Superheroes 2 by William D. Arand

I think this book can best be described as a transitional piece setting the stage for the next books in the series. Unfortunately, whatever made the first novel fresh and exciting is long gone and I found it difficult to get too interested in the plot. Felix, the unlikeable protagonist, feels like a different character in this book. In the original novel, he needed the supers he kept purchasing to manage everything in his life for him but now he blithely gives out orders and gives the appearance of ultra-competence. It just wasn’t the same guy.


We also got our first look at the big bad who took over Skipper City in the last novel and she just didn’t come off as smart, capable or impressive. That was a huge disappointment.


On the other hand, there’s some decent world building as Arand puts pieces in place for future novels. Gods have returned to the world and are turning it upside down. We also learn that the planet of Super Sales is even more different from our world than the presence of super beings would suggest. There are plot threads in these revelations that will hopefully produce many good stories in the future.


The best aspect of this novel is the continued development of the supporting cast, especially the character Miu. She made for a convincingly and disturbingly insane villain and if perhaps we can’t quite figure out why she’s fixated on Felix, it did make for the most interesting storyline in the whole book.


Overall, my enjoyment of the first book kept me in there hoping and will get me to read the next one as well.




Super Sales on Super Heroes 3 by William D. Arand

The overall storyline is better in this novel than in its predecessor, but Arand still hasn’t recaptured the magic that made his first novel so interesting. Several years have passed and Felix and his Legion are enmeshed in city and inter-world politics. He meets a cousin with the powers of a demigod and gets a new assistant who starts taking over everything. She felt off from beginning to end of the novel and I can’t really figure out if she was supposed to. From page one I was waiting for her to betray Felix, but she seems to be yet another superpowered creature who is madly in love with him and again, I can’t figure out why. Felix is slightly more likeable in this novel, but that only makes him unlikeable as opposed to thoroughly dislikeable. Over all, this novel had a couple of interesting subplots but the main story felt dragged out and the villain revealing herself at the end felt contrived.