Panopolis: Where There’s Smoke – Cari Z
Panopolis is a rough place to be an average Joe. I came here looking for adventure and excitement, but nobody cares about one more normal guy in a city filled with super-powered heroes. The closest I’ve come to glory is working in a bank that villains often rob.
But then I maybe accidentally-on-purpose helped a villain escape the hero who was trying to save the day. Imagine my shock when, a week later, that villain asked me out for coffee. One date turned into more, and now I’m head over heels in love with Raul.
Falling in love with the guy dubbed the Mad Bombardier isn’t without its downsides, though. I’ve had to deal with near-death encounters with other villains, awkwardly flirtatious heroes who won’t take no for an answer, and a lover I’m not sure I can trust. It’s getting to the point where I know I’ll have to make a choice: side with the heroes, or stand fast by my villain.
Either way, I think my days as a normal guy are over.
Panopolis: Where There’s Fire – Cari Z
Making a name for myself as a Villain in Panopolis is hard work. Six months ago, my boyfriend broke me out of jail. Now he’s spending most of his time defending our turf against other Villains he accidentally freed along with me. And my new psychic powers are not only impossible to control, but they’re also giving me migraines.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. My skills are improving every day, and Raul—aka the Mad Bombardier—and I have never been happier. That is, until my first solo job is interrupted by a mysterious woman who tells me that Raul has been kidnapped by a ruthless new Villain. The only way to free him is to do a job for Maggot, a man with scary ideas and an even scarier superpower.
I can’t go to the cops or a Hero for help. Odds are they wouldn’t listen to me anyway. If I fail, Raul will be killed. If I succeed, we’ll both be bound to a man who’ll stop at nothing to put Panopolis on the path to civil war.
It looks like the only way to win is to take out the competition.
When I was working as an ESL tutor, my Japanese student and I talked about anime. I told him I was almost always fascinated with the villains and asked why anime stories usually show the villain’s backstory. I asked because most western cartoons don’t do that. He told me it was because the Japanese believe an enemy today could be a friend tomorrow.
Panopolis by Cari Z is a great example of of the shifting lines between villainy and heroism. Sometimes, it’s a matter of perspective. This underrated series deconstructs the superhero and supervillain tropes.
I came into this thinking I would get a cartoonish, comical romp, something along the lines of Despicable Me or The Incredibles. I got a dark, sinister tale of highly unethical science, mind control and oppression, torture and terrorism, politics and conspiracies, and the collateral damage that is conveniently ignored in the name of saving the day.
Panopolis is a mega-city with an unusually high number of supers. Time-honored tradition dictates it’s always heroes vs. villains. The good guys have corporate sponsorships and all the perks. The baddies are mostly after money and make the heroes look good. The fights get a lot of tv coverage, usually as entertainment.
Where There’s Smoke opens the series with a bank heist by one of the city’s most notorious villains, The Mad Bombardier. It happens to be the bank where Edward Dingle works. He’s a kind, mild-mannered guy. So kind he couldn’t resist covertly helping the very villain robbing his bank because he saw The Mad Bombardier needed a hand.
Intrigued, The Mad Bombardier, a.k.a. Raul, sought Edward out again. Their first date was cute! They eventually started dating. The story breezed through the early parts of their relationship and fast-forwarded to them being an established couple.
Raul is a total sweetheart, and his costume is supercool! He became a bomb expert due to a rather atypical upbringing. He wears a helmet with numbers counting down. It looks ominous, but it’s actually his little joke. He’s also the only top villain with no body count under his belt so far.
Book 1 is a 2-hour audiobook, so the plot moved fast. The story is told from the 1st-person POV of Edward, tackling the moral dilemma and the consequences of dating a supervillain. It shakes an already precarious situation by having that supervillain’s superhero nemesis crushing on Edward and persistently asking him out. Edward is also slowly learning what those corporate sponsorships really entail.
I love how the story blurs the lines. Along with Edward, we question who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who is the criminal? Who is the victim? And who the hell is really in charge? This novella laid out a fantastic foundation for the follow-up. It’s best to have the next book on hand before starting this because the ending turned Edward’s world upside down. You’ll be grabbing that sequel immediately!
Where There’s Fire picks up on the aftermath of all those explosions. This is where those foreboding thoughts about Panopolis became harsh reality. What was only hinted at and glimpsed in the periphery came out in the open when Edward and Raul met with the villains. It’s where the series became truly dark.
It’s also the part where I was seriously torn. One hand, I felt sorry for these villains because of what they had gone through. It was pretty nasty! I also understood their cause, their fight to right the wrongs done to their ilk. But then, them being what they are, they get a little too Machiavellian. Poor Raul had to suffer for it!
This is the part where Edward embraced who he really was. How he saved Raul was brilliantly executed! It’s like the man conquered the city by making people feel and being his kind self. He was awesome!!!
This is longer than the 1st book, so things were more fleshed out. The tension is tight throughout the story. The suspense ratcheted up several notches when our boy Edward took on the entire city. Edward’s trick on the boss fight scene was super clever!
I tried not to give too many details here because it’s best to go in knowing only the minimum details. The Cari Z books I’ve read are those she has written with L.A. Witt. I need to read more of her solo works, as well, because she’s a very talented writer. I could tell she really knows her stuff when it comes to supers.
Panopolis is the perfect example of that. It is an action-packed, sometimes sweet, thought-provoking, and uniquely fascinating take on heroes and villains. A potent reminder that with great powers comes great headaches.
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The Community: Insight – Santino Hassell
Growing up the outcast in an infamous family of psychics, Nate Black never learned how to control his empath abilities. Then after five years without contact, his estranged twin turns up dead in New York City. The claim of suicide doesn’t ring true, especially when a mysterious vision tells Nate it was murder. Now his long-hated gift is his only tool to investigate.
Hitching from his tiny Texas town, Nate is picked up by Trent, a gorgeous engineer who thrives on sarcasm and skepticism. The heat that sparks between them is instant and intense, and Nate ends up trusting Trent with his secrets—something he’s never done before. But once they arrive in the city, the secrets multiply when Nate discovers an underground supernatural community, more missing psychics, and frightening information about his own talent.
Nate is left questioning his connection with Trent. Are their feelings real, or are they being propelled by abilities Nate didn’t realize he had? His fear of his power grows, but Nate must overcome it to find his brother’s killer and trust himself with Trent’s heart.
My first Santino Hassell book sadly didn’t blow me away. For the most part, it felt like nothing was happening. What saved the book was the awesome voice acting and the dialogue. Hassell wrote some of the most natural sounding dialogues I have ever come across with and Greg Bordeaux did an outstanding job acting them out. It felt like I was listening to actual conversations between real people when Nate and Trent were talking. Chase’s emotional outburst was delivered in the most gut-wrenching clenched teeth delivery ever and with these, I would have gladly given the book 5 stars.
However, there is much left to be desired. Insight is the first book of The Community series and it introduces Nate Black from the notorious Black family, all psychics and all slightly unhinged. Nate works in a liquor store where he first met Trent. The attraction was instantaneous which would have worked had this part been explained a little more. All throughout the book, Trent was just this highly intelligent supportive friend/boyfriend figure and not much else. The chemistry between him and Nate worked for me somehow but it would have been great if Trent had been more fleshed out.
The story was part mystery, part romance and mostly paranormal thriller. Nate received visions of his brother’s death in New York and he set out to hitchhike with Trent all the way to the city. There he met the members of Theo’s band and Evolution’s staff, a club for queer psychics where he discovered The Community, an organization that supposedly takes in and assists disenfranchised psychics like his brother. Soon he noticed the suspicious and unsavory side of The Com and tried to uncover how all of these are related to Theo’s death. These parts involved a lot of talks and explanations about The Com and psychics in general and not much action so it was a bit of a drag. There were a lot of cool powers mentioned and I was over-expecting some awesome shounen anime type battles but only a few of these powers were seen in action so meh.
It was also easy to guess who’s who and what’s what so the big reveal was not as shocking as it’s suppose to be. However, Jasper wins as the creepiest supervillain of the series even though we haven’t met him in person yet and I can’t wait for the showdown between him and Chase (book 3 maybe?).
I will tag this one as a case of first book syndrome and hope that Holden’s and Chase’s books fare much better.
2.5 Stars – far from hate but not quite a like
Russ Morgan Mystery: Enigma – Lloyd A. Meeker
Who’s blackmailing the high-profile televangelist whose son was famously cured of his homosexuality fifteen years ago? Now in 2009, that ought to be ancient history.
It seems there’s no secret to protect, no crime, not even a clear demand for money—just four threatening letters using old Enigma songs from the 90′s. But they’ve got Reverend Howard Richardson spooked.
Proudly fifty and unhappily single, gay PI Russ Morgan has made peace with being a psychic empath, and he’s managed to build a decent life since getting sober. As he uncovers obscene secrets shrouded in seeming righteousness he might have to make peace with a sword of justice that cuts the innocent as deeply as the guilty.
I already had an inkling on who’s doing it a quarter through the story but I kept on reading because the secrets unrevealed confirmed what I had always suspect: holier than thou high-profile televangelists are indeed creepy.
3 Stars – not exactly setting my world on fire but I liked it