Friday 27 January 2023

Review by Jon Wilkins of "Cities on Fire" by C. H. Wilkins

Cities on Fire is a genre-bending mash-up of the superhero and spy genres, with a creeping and sinister dose of horror.

Spoiler Alert, as we say, the author is my son.

Even so, having followed his writing career for quite a while and read his earlier self-published novels, I approached this as I always do with eyes wide open and ready to critique if indeed critique is needed.

Cities on Fire, to quote the author, is '… a superhero conspiracy thriller, inspired by the comics I grew up with, and the answer to "what if you crossed the Avengers with The X-Files?"' And that’s exactly what you get. As we currently store over 11,000 of our son’s graphic novels in our attic, I can see the influences that weigh upon him and our bedroom ceiling. They are reflected in no small measure in his writing which at times echoes the visceral nature of the modern graphic novels, but still keep a sense of humour.

Whilst based on no particular super hero, the writer's characters maintain the usual features that we can expect from them, indeed his characterisation is one of the many highlights of this intriguing novel. The writer sets out his stall in the very first chapter when an attempt on the president's daughter causes mayhem and Madison is only able to overcome her adversary by sticking her hand into … No perhaps I’d best save you that image.

Cities on Fire takes place on new recruit Madison Myer's first day with the ALEPH organisation, when all hell breaks loose across the world. A rogue nation declares war! A long-dead supervillain hijacks the airwaves! A mysterious enemy targets key figures in ALEPH's leadership! Madison didn't think she'd have it easy, but she never thought it'd get this hard, and soon she's thrust onto the frontlines of a conspiracy with repercussions for the wider world.

While this is taking place, new evidence comes out suggesting that The Shrike, a disgraced superhero imprisoned for ten long, painful, years for a series of brutal murders, might not have been as guilty as everybody thought. How can you re-enter a world that turned its back on you, and what does it mean for the people you left behind? Or better yet, those who left you behind?

Wilkins doffs his blood-splattered cap to the history and legacy of comic books and skilfully transfers it to the written world. I find that his writing conveys the same magic of the comic book that we read in childhood and beyond into adulthood.  It will be up to you, the reader, to make what you wish of his various nods to comic book royalty. That alone is a pleasure in this blood-curdling, rip-roaring novel.  

The novel defies convention, defies reality as we know it, defies any attempt to pigeon hole it into a particular genre. It is a mash-up of all that we know from the super-hero world and more as Wilkins delves into the world of music and pop culture, of dystopian horror, villains and heroes, of murder and mayhem whilst maintaining a cohesive story line that will force you to the next page and the next. 

To call this a rollercoaster ride would be an understatement. Nothing is straightforward, we can only wish Madison Myer good luck for the next adventure that confronts her and hope that C. H. Wilkins delivers the sequel in good time.

About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 67. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot! 

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