01/06/2009. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin
pub: Abaddon Books. 290 page paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK), $ 7.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-905437-34-X.
check out website: www.abaddonbooks.com
Abaddon Books have caught my eye several times in recent years with their evocative advertising on many British magazines' back pages and on the walls of London's subways. Their stylish yet garish and gothic covers evoke an updated pulp fiction for the ipod generation. Containing often ultra-violent action and stylised over the top themes, the imprint shares the overblown horror, SF and fantasy of its parent company, Rebellion's iconic comicbook, '2000AD'.
Abaddon has a few keys series of books it promotes, including post-apocalyptic, zombie and sword and sorcery themes. 'El Sombra' by Al Ewing forms part of Abaddon's 'Pax Britannia' series, a steampunk modern day where the British Empire dominates the world, with Queen Victoria and Hitler still ruling their prospective empires, sustained by clanking steam technology.
The other 'Pax Britannia' books are written exclusively by Jonathan Green, about foppish British investigator Ulysses Quicksilver. A short story by Green set in this part of the world is included at the end of the main novel but I found Green's work far surpassed by Al Ewing's debut effort.
'El Sombra' is set in a different part of the world to the rest of the series. The Nazis have invaded and occupied Mexico, where they use the local populace for experiments in social and mind control. The town of Pasito is used as a test bed for creating indoctrinated slaves, controlled like robots by fear and repression.
The methods they use for this is well imagined by Ewing, with a local 'Master Plus' being given rewards to inspire the population whilst a daunting 'Master Minus' tortures and punishes those who disappoint the Third Reich. General Eisenberg and his twisted son Alexis rule over the Mexicans with brutal, crushing domination.
The Nazis don't expect any resistance to their rule but when a survivor of the original Nazi massacre returns from a nine year exile in the desert, things change dramatically. Calling himself El Sombra, the masked man has learned a myriad of incredible skills and abilities in his time in the desert and fosters a deep hatred and anger for the Nazis for the murder of his family and unrequited love.
What follows is one long breakneck action adventure as El Sombra dances around the town, confronted by ever more dangerous and bizarre enemies. The Nazis send more imaginative monstrous creations with each defeat, from metal winged SS troopers to giant steam-powered behemoths with clanking claws. El Sombra massacres his way through them, fuelled by anger and revenge.
The whole thing is remarkably unrestrained, with little attempt at realism or subtlety. The action scenes are intense, brutally violent and ever-intensifying, with blood, gore and death following the lead character around. Those of the faint heart or stomach would be advised to stay clear of this one.
The Nazis are also incredibly one-dimensional beasts of evil, delighting in torture and depravity for their own sake, for no apparent reason other than that they are Nazis. The masked hero is impossibly talented with no explanation given for how he miraculously morphed into a Hispanic version of Neo from 'The Matrix' in his nine years of wandering the desert.
Despite my misgivings about the premise and the occasional moment of squeamishness as the body count rose, I really enjoyed the mindless action of 'El Sombra'. Al Ewing has an excellent sense of pace and action, with every page promising more excitement if you turn it. The rising tension as the stakes and challenges grow higher and higher works well and despite his relative lack of personality one can't help but root for this Zorro character against such an utterly evil set of foes.
The short story by Jonathan Green afterwards is disappointing by comparison and it's a shame the promise of future El Sombra stories appears to be remote. This is rousingly satisfying grindhouse tale of Nazis and ultra-violence. Turn the internal censor off and leave your brain at the door and sit and enjoy the ride.
Tomas L. Martin
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