Four reviews with nothing in common, really. Squadron Supreme, Robert Asprin's The Bug Wars, Kit Thackeray's Crownbird, and Alex Marshall's new novella, Beasts of the Burnished Chain. Featuring: Military science fiction, four-colour superheroes, colonialist espionage action, and some grimdark skullduggery!
Squadron is really quite spectacular, and every time I read it, I'm more impressed. It is, for those that missed it, a pre-Watchmen (barely) examination of superheroism. Squadron's thematic heft is made all the more weighty by the fact that the Squadron is a group of C-list Marvel heroes that are all thinly veiled versions of DC characters. That makes them expendable and strangely liberated - despite their immediate familiarity, there's no backstory, canon or future. The result is, quite possibly, the most mature, most interesting take on the Justice League that ever existed - all courtesy of Marvel Comics.
The twelve issue series begins with a world that's in bad shape, thanks to a battle between the Squadron and a mind-controlling super-villain. The Squadron steps up and declares itself 'in charge': the team is going to fix the world. From infrastructure to disarmament, they go about their utopian plan - forcing everyone to be better, if necessary. The situation becomes more extreme when the Squadron find themselves with a machine that can 'behaviourally modify' people. Now, as well as sweeping social and infrastructural change, they can now literally make individuals Be Good. The ethical situation doesn't go unchallenged, and the discussion - and fallout - is explored over the course of the series.
Squadron looks like a dinosaur: it is chirpy and four-colour, and at first glance, it feels charmingly naive. If anything, this only makes it more powerful. In modern grimdark interpretations - from Marc Millar comics to Zach Snyder films - we're given all the visual cues of 'grit' and 'despair'. Squadron, in that sense, is a Trojan Horse. Flipping through its disarmingly vintage pages, it is easy to believe that everything is going to turn out ok in the end. Spoiler: it doesn't. "Classic" is a dangerous word to bandy around, but as something that stands the test of time and overshadows its many imitators, I feel confident about using it here.
[FWIW, I have virtually no time for any of the shenanigans, reboots and crossovers that took place after the initial series. Marvel's ability to stumble on something good then beat it to death is unparalleled. Well, except for DC.]
Oh man, guys, The Bug Wars! Aside: I totally read the bejeezus out of this book as a kid. I was delighted to find a photo of MY EXACT COVER online. I mean, look at this! There's a lizard-draconian-snek fighting a really fat mecha-bug with a SPACE-SWORD, and there's like an overturned bug in the background and, like, I dunno. What else do you need, right? I love this cover. Books are great, guys. Books.
Anyway, Asprin is best known for his Myth series, but he also had a pretty extensive bibliography of stand-alones best described as 'pulpy'. The Bug Wars is his second book, and it is basically Starship Troopers with lizards.
In fact, it is Starship Troopers with lizards. Our heroes are the lizards - the Tzen - an intergalactic, caste-based empire. Rahm is a Warrior, and, from his perspective, we see a series of skirmishes with the Tzen’s various bug-type enemies. Wasps, Leapers, Ants... all big, mean versions of, well... bugs. (This is a shame, because if our heroes were the bugs, we'd be, like, totally in revisionist Heinlein territory and thinking zomg in a fascist state we are the unthinking drones but alas, instead it is just Heinlein again and the enemies are the bugs.)
The scenarios all play out across the war, as Rahm is constantly (conveniently) in the front-line. There’s a planetary invasion, orbital bombardment, powerful gear, rescues, etc. etc. Perpetual mayhem and very little emotional engagement. Eventually (SPOILERS) the Tzen triumph, and Rahm returns to stasis until he is next required. You see, because he is as much a part of a machine as the Bugs are, kinda, and maybe gigantic caste-based empires are a form of fascism in and of themselves. It is a lesson, yo. I think. Mostly lizards fight bugs with space-swords, which is cool. See: the cover.
The Bug Wars doesn’t quite have Johnny Rico asking what it means ‘to be a Citizen’, but it does have a lot of lizards talking about ‘what Warriors do’. And, in both cases, it means To Battle the Other, With Space-Swords. So, well, that’s that.
“Beasts of the Burnished Chain” by Alex Marshall (2018)
A novellette in Grimdark Magazine: a super-gooey extended vignette in Marshall’s Crimson Empire world. For those that haven’t read Marshall’s fantasy trilogy, definitely do. And for those worried about the investment of time (they are three good-sized bricks!), “Beasts” makes for one hell of a sale pitch.
“Beasts” features Sister Portoles, a war nun of the Burnished Chain. A secondary character in the main series, she does well as the star of her own (horrible) episode. Portoles and her equally warped (literally: the Burnished Chain likes to carve up its own disciples) comrades are chasing rebels through the countryside. But a straightforward mission goes awry, and soon Portoles is dealing with deadly fruit, deadlier monsters and - worst of all - moral uncertainty. For a war nun, the latter cuts at the very core of her being.
Still, for readers fearing something theological - or even remotely didactic - worry not! This is a 15,000 word splatterfantasy romp, with limbs askew, bits a-splodin’, and monsters a-gooing. Anything can that can die (messily) will die (messily) and what with the askewing and the asploding, there’s not a lot of time for inner turmoil. The ‘Alex Marshall’ pseudonym is, to some degree, author Jesse Bullington’s Evil Goofy, and, in “Beasts”, he’s given full reign to go wild.
Crownbird is an adventure/spy thriller set in Uganda and Tanzania. British Intelligence, peeved at Chinese interference, are trying to hustle a former dictator from point A to point B because he’s apparently better than the competition. For the British, that is. The actual good of the actual people is completely superfluous and never discussed.
There are a few POV characters, but largely this follows the exploits of Harry Priest, the agent who is in charge of the operation. He is a sexxxy man in his 40s who is disappointed in the system but also likes to have sex and topple governments, and the Empire Needs Good Men Like Him who are willing to Do The Necessary which largely involves killing anyone that's not white.
This book is so fascinatingly horrible that I spent a good few minutes on Google trying to come up with some sort of contextual excuse for its very existence. Alas, there is nothing.
The best thing I could say is that it sort of has a Deighton-esque skepticism as to the sluggish bureaucracy of intelligence organisations, but,... really, that doesn’t offset the cover-to-cover racism, sexism, and joyously pro-colonialist messaging. It is an attempt at Haggard/Bond fusion, but really picks up the worst traits of both: as boring as the worst Fleming, as tactlessly racist as the worst Haggard. There’s an awkward balance of over-detailed action and emo manfeelz here: done right, you could get a middling Tom Clancy knock-off. Done poorly, you get Crownbird.