THE SHADOW by James Patterson and Brian Sitts is a bad, pointless effort to reboot the franchise for 21st century readers (though given Patterson is a name brand, that’s not to say it won’t work). In 1937, an attack by archfoe Shiwan Khan leaves Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane poisoned and dying, but Cranston’s prepared for this worst case scenario. They’re both placed in suspended animation (this was a trick used with Sherlock Holmes in three different stories back in the 1990s); Cranston thaws out healed in 2087 but where’s Margo?
Part of the problem is that this handwaves the Shadow’s magazine and radio stories as fiction based on the real exploits of Lamont Cranston, socialite PI and adventurer (Marvel has used a similar premise to retcon some of its Golden Age comics). It’s pretty much a Name Only take on the Shadow — he and Shiwan Khan can now levitate and throw force bolts — which doesn’t work for me as a long-time fan. If I approach the book as a totally separate creation, it still doesn’t work. There are a few nice touches — witnessing the dystopia of 2087, Cranston assumes the Depression never ended — but it’s 90 percent uninspired and bland. The main new character has a connection I guessed just from reading the synospis, yet it’s written as if we’ll all be shell-shocked by the Big Reveal.
THE FROZEN CROWN by Greta Kelly has as protagonist a queen in exile who’s also a secret necromancer (witches are not well thought of). Having her kingdom under the Empire of Doom, she arrives in the capital of the Empire Of Sort-Of Justice to enlist support for reclaiming her land. Obstacles include the complexities of the empire’s Byzantine politics and the cult of mage-haters hoping the empire will back their belief in not suffering a witch to live. Fantasies involving politics don’t always work for me, but this was enjoyable, though the cliffhanger didn’t really work for me.
BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (given the emphasis on the term the past few years, I’m surprised to learn this came out in 2015) by A. Brad Schwartz looks at how Wells, when he was radio’s enfant terrible, decided to perform a fictionalized news broadcast (something already done a couple of times) and settled on War of the Worlds as the subject matter. The results, as Schwartz details, did not panic many people — the usual response was simply to warn others or call the radio station for more information — and many listeners assumed what had happened involved a natural disaster or a German attack. The newspapers, however, were happy to play up the more extreme reactions to show how irresponsible this new medium of radio was. Then a researcher branded the panic as proof Americans were sheeple easily vulnerable to fascist manipulation (like I said, this was pre-Trump) and Welles himself would push stories of panic over the years as his star faded and this became one of the things he was best known for. Very good.
A FATAL THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon suffers from her efforts to be humorous (too many quips about “This emperor was boring, aren’t you lucky I’m not discussing him?”) but still does a good job looking at how violent ancient Rome was. This included killings that shocked Rome (regicide, killing senators, human sacrifice) and more interestingly those that didn’t — butchering slaves (if one slave killed their owner, every slave in the household died), gladiatorial games and creative methods of executing prisoners. Southon does show Rome wasn’t alaways as black as it’s painted — parents killing their kids wasn’t approved of the way many sources claim — but she argues it saw people fundamentally differently from us. Only a small fraction of the populace had dignitas — enough importance that their lives mattered — while everyone else was disposable. In most cases, death was a private family matter, not anything that involved the government or (largely non-existent) law enforcement. Grim but absorbing reading.
#SFWApro. Cover by Michael Kaluta, all rights to images remain with current holder.