Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Crimson Son

Ahh, you guys.  THAT was a time.  That was a weekend!

I mean, I've been to cons before.  ConDFW isn't the biggest, or the weirdest, or the wildest.  But I tell you what: to date, it's the only time I've gotten to watch an author axe-kick an editor.

In this corner, Tae Kwon Do (Russ Linton). In this corner, also Tae Kwon Do (Adrian Simmons).
Behind them, Krav Maga, Bartitsu, and Tai Chi, respectively.
For more on the cathartic beauty of the Literary UFC panel, see Russ Linton's Dealing With Rejection Through Physical Violence.  For more on Russ Linton... hang out here for a sec.

See, I have to post this big-ass disclaimer here, because I need you to know a couple of things before we get into the book review.  The thing is, I know Russ. I like Russ. I liked him pretty good even before he ninja-name-dropped our way out of a parking garage and co-ran the Shootout at the Obscure Genre Corral with me this weekend.  (NOW I think he's just fucking fabulous.)

And one of the reasons I like him so dang much is because he posted this wonderful review of One Night in Sixes.  In our world, reviews are gold - and a review that highlights the specially wonderful parts of a book while also being honest about its "watch out for" and "you might not like this if" features is mithril-coated vibranium starmetal.

But that's what he did for me - and by gum, that's what I'm gonna do for him!  So here in all its fully-disclosed glory is my review of Crimson Son.

Crimson Son
by Russ Linton

His mother kidnapped, his superhero father absent, powerless Spencer Harrington faces a world of weaponized humans to prove himself and find the truth. Nineteen-year-old Spencer is the son of the Crimson Mask, the world's most powerful Augment. Since witnessing his mother's abduction by a psychotic super villain two years ago, he's been confined to his father's arctic bunker. When the "Icehole" comes under attack from a rampaging robot, Spencer launches into his father's dangerous world of weaponized human beings known as Augments. With no superpowers of his own save a multi-tool, a quick wit and a boatload of emotional trauma, Spencer seeks to uncover his mother's fate and confront his absentee superhero father. As he stumbles through a web of conspiracies and top secret facilities, he rallies a team of everyday people and cast-off Augments. But Spencer soon discovers that the Black Beetle isn't his only enemy, nor his worst.

I think I tweeted about this book once by saying something along the lines of "because when the Black Beetle invades your ice-hole, you grab your multi-tool and GTFO." And if your first reaction to that is "I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm up for it!" then boy, have I got a book for you.

For me, this is my first foray into superhero fiction (though I keep meaning to lay hands on Landon Porter's Descendants series).  At first, I was a little leery: the Spider-Man movies have covered my RDA of angsty super-white-boys until about 2025 - and we all know there is no angst like teen angst.

In this case, it's coming from Spencer Harrington, the powerless son of the world's greatest hero (well, almost-powerless: that boy can shake off traumatic brain injuries like most of us can walk off a charley-horse.) But we start out here with an intriguing premise: what's it like to be one of the Aunt Mays and Mary Janes of the super-verse?  What kind of life can you have when you're every villain's dream hostage – and how do you avoid resenting the super-spouse or -parent whose need to protect you has basically turned you into their prisoner?

And yes, there is teen angst, and a few moments of willful buttheadery (I imagine living in permanent solitary at the North Pole doesn't really help the whole social-skills thing), and one or two terrible decisions. But as great as it is to ask the question, "how can a normal kid hold his own in a super-powered world?", I'm even more delighted with the author's answer: "by making friends, using his heart and skill, and relying on the help of good people – supers and not-so-much – to get the job done."  Think Big Hero 6, if Baymax were a giant homicidal bug-mech named Cuddles.

But as much as I like what's here in the story, I almost appreciate it more for what's missing.  There's no love interest, for one thing (which isn't to say there's no leading lady - and let me say here that I am SO THIRSTY for more stories like this, where guys and gals can have a rock-solid friendship, Captain-America-and-Black-Widow-style, without all the will-they/won't-they business!)  No DBZ-esque "I will defeat you with the power of my rage" special-snowflakery.  And apart from a lamentably vapid fat lady and one villain's penchant for Alec-Baldwin levels of petulant cruelty, no 'types', either.  The characters feel like real people – and more than that, they treat each other like real people.  Nobody is the axis of the universe, here. Nobody is unimportant.

So if you're wondering what the trade-off is for all the gorgeous comic artwork you don't get in a novel, I think that's it right there. Sure, there's still building explosions and car crashes and narrow escapes and super-gadgetry and possibly even a cape – but there's also that deeper stuff that characterizes (what I consider) the very best superhero stories, like The Incredibles and Watchmen. We have time to meditate on what happens to these super-people when they're used up and broken, and to the regular people who have to live in their shadow.  We have room to consider what separates a good parent from a good-intentioned one, and how to let go of somebody you shouldn't have had to lose in the first place, and why we keep wanting what we can't have. We have a super-verse where the heroes don't all wear spandex, and the villains aren't all bad people.

As it happens, this is a first novel, with some of the challenges that first novels have: I feel like it could be about 10% leaner, and I encourage you to give it 50 pages to really hit its stride.  But boy, if this is what a first novel can be - if this guy can pack this much action and drama and humor and heart into a freaking debut - then you definitely want to be caught up and ready before he drops his second.  I'll save you a spot in line.

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My favorite bit:

I turn to the door. No keypad, not even a handle on this side. The seam around the door is so tight, I don't think a piece of paper could slip between it and the frame. Outside, Dad is playing ass-puppet for an Augment, and Emily is doing a good job as an Exorcist stand-in. In here, I've got no tools, no battle armor, and no underappreciated minions on my side.

I slump against the door. "We're fucked."


  1. Thanks again for the review! Looking forward to Medicine for the Dead and hoping to maybe be on that same panel next year. (I'll try to conspire a bit in advance with the other panelists next time.)

    1. Dude, totally - it's hard to imagine how to improve on what y'all did this year, but if there is a way, I know you will find it! (Also, I will totally put this on Amazon and GR - slowly, slowly, I creep towards competence...!)