Well, this is so very much not what I was expecting. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that it took me a while to realign my expectations and allow myself to enjoy what I found.
Basically, Shield and Crocus is an epic fantasy novel with superheroes . . . or a superhero novel set in an epic fantasy realm . . . take your pick. Michael R. Underwood takes an ambitious approach to his storytelling here, mashing up genres that you'd otherwise think incompatible, and setting it all in a city built amidst the bones of a fallen giant.
For his medieval take on The Avengers (with flavors of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns), Underwood puts together a complex, intriguing group of heroes with a wide range of magically-imbued powers. His is a world where anybody can be a hero, if only they can survive the curse/gift of the Spark-storms without going mad. The five supervillains - or crime lords, as you will - are evil tyrants, bent on dominating everything and everyone around them. They're completely one-dimensional, with nothing in the way of redeeming qualities, but that's par for the course with the superhero genre, and doesn't take anything away from the story.
Like the aforementioned graphic novels, this is an exceedingly grim tale, full of hopelessness and despair. A happy ending is in no way guaranteed, and you can rest assured there will be sacrifices required along the way - some of which you'll see coming, and at least one of which is a surprise. The narrative itself is very much that of an epic fantasy, as is the setting, while the dialogue leans more towards superhero adventure. It's a clash, at times, but overall it works reasonably well. While I would have liked to see the villains better developed, and thought a few of the heroes were somewhat neglected, I can't say enough about the mythology and the world building. Underwood put a lot of thought into constructing the world of Audec-Hal, and it shows.
Superhero novels and I haven't meshed particularly well over the years, with Myke Cole's Shadow Ops series being the most recent to fall flat for me, but there's a lot to be said for the novelty factor. Shield and Crocus was not what I was expecting, sure, but the novelty factor kept me reading, and that led me into what turned out to be a solid read. So long as you go into it with the right expectations, you're likely to enjoy it as an original twist on both genres.
Paperback, 416 pages
Expected publication: June 10th 2014 by 47north