Sunday, October 18, 2020

Review: Unmasked, by Kai Wai Cheah

In the Heroes United world of Silver Empire Press, Kai Wai Cheah’s Adam Song has been described as the Punisher.


In Unmasked, that comparison becomes closer.

I described the first book in Kai Wai Cheah’s Song of Karma, Hollow City, as Larry Correia and Michael Connelly writing a superhero police procedural. Complete with gun porn and noir stylistic writing. This time, our hero, Adam Song is back. By the time we’re done with the first chapter, it feels very much like Richard Chandler, with knife porn instead of gun porn, and superhero action on par with a Hong Kong Wu Xia film.

It is not a spoiler that Unmasked begins with Adam Song outed as the SWAT superhero Amp. Due to Hollow City being a cross of the worst of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, he’s being prosecuted for murder of a gang-banger and his girlfriend, largely because of political hacks who are all too eager to throw him and the police under the bus. With the pressure building from anti-superhero group “Cape Watch,” and anti-law enforcement hate groups, their first instinct is to throw the book at Adam Song. It’s so bad, the restaurant owned by Adam’s family is under siege by Cape Watch and the gang bangers friends. 

Lest you think that this is being inspired by recent events, I read an ARC of this novel in January. Any and all inspirations from real life were at least five years old before everything old became new again this summer. If Kai Wai Cheah becomes any more predictive, he’s going to give me a run for my money.

The trial segment is as well written as any trial written by Michael Connelly, and he’s done more than a few. For anyone who has followed the series, the court sequences feels like Connelly’s Harry Bosch is on trial … again. And the trial sequences are all very well put together, and used to great effect. One of the opening trial bits was a great bit of recap. And the trial itself is fast paced and entertaining. Despite how much of the plot it is, the trial itself is only four chapters.

But while Adam is being prosecuted for murder, he has other old friends pulling at him. “Don Peterson” (assuming that’s his real name) is a part of Adam’s old life in wet work and black bag operations, offering Adam a Faustian bargain to make everything go away if Adam just came back to government service, taking down the supervillains who are too powerful to merely throw in jail. It’s a nice bit of spy thriller that reminds me as the classic Adam Hall Quiller novels, with the sort of deal that will remind the casual reader of Suicide Squad.

Meanwhile, Adam is keeping busy with a paying job. An old friend, a Bhuddist monk, is being pressured by the People’s Republic of China to come to China … and if he won’t accept the invitation gracefully, they intend to force the issue by any means necessary. It seems like an easy job for a SWAT superhero—until the Chinese reveal a superpowered minion of their own. (I await some people to cry racism against China… until someone realizes that Cheah is a Singapore native.) In short, the People’s Republic of China has not changed in the slightest. China is still China. 

Cheah does a great job of balancing the three plots—fighting China, the trial, and the espionage aspects brought in with the character of Don Peterson. And when they collide in the finale, it will blow you away. 

Or, as the book itself says, “Riots, gangesters, spies and supervillains. It’s going to be a perfect f***ing storm.”

And it is.

Over the course of the book, we see Adam balance being a law enforcement officer, versus facing overwhelming threats. Despite edging closer to becoming the Punisher, Adam is still a cop by training, and works hard to stay on the side of the law, even when the lines become just a wee bit blurry. And while the plot may feel like a closer start than the first book, that’s only because the last half as twice the action as the entire first novel.

And the writing is wonderful to read. The character development is great. All the little touches paint quick, complex characters with ease. I even think the primary Chinese villain here comes from Fist of the North Star, but my anime is rusty. Cheah brings in a large cast of characters, and more of them are original to this novel. It’s a superhero team up story without a large body of characters spread throughout the universe. The descriptions are… well, one villain is referred to as “The Shadowless Ghost,” with “low friends in high places.” Two cops are “a teddy bear paired with a wolf.”

One paragraph I feel compelled to quote is the opening of chapter one.

“Everybody wants to be a superhero. 

They want the fast life, filled with adrenaline and excitement and superpower showdowns. They want to haul in the bad guys, show off their scares, earn the adoration of the faceless masses on the Internet. They want the sponsorship deals, corporate paychecks, Gucchi gear, crowdfunded patronage. After that, it’s easy street all the way.

Funny thing is, it never works out that way.”

Tell me that isn’t a great opening. 

Cheah also has more humor in this one. The chapter headings are entertaining.

This corner of Silver Empire’s series has great world building from the aspect of law enforcement and espionage in a world of superpowers. It’s nice to see that the FBI… is still absolutely useless (while they have a Hostage Rescue Team for superpowers, it’s a superpower conflict. By the time they get to the scene of the incident, it’s all over but the screaming. And a lot of the screaming is over too). Cheah goes into the licensing and training for superheroes, and it is … very California. Even the elements with Don Peterson has a very rigorous logic of assassination. Worst of all, Cheah delves into how many superheroes, or “primes” go into public service, and it is so very human.

And of course, there is the end, which brings together two threads of this universe together with a bang. 

In short (I know, too late), five stars out of five.