Shadows of the Opera, Book One: The Mark of the Revenant by Rick Lai

I have really mixed feelings about this book. I give it 5 stars for actually keeping the original story of the Phantom of the Opera 100% accurate, 4 stars for the story concept, 2 stars for the writing style, and 1 star for the crime against humanity that is the editing. I truly can’t believe the editor was proud enough of this to put his name in the book. Hence I split the difference all around: 3 stars.

Having revisited The Phantom of the Opera via audiobook today, it was fresh in my mind as this story unfolded, and as I say, the story of Erik is completely and unapologetically accurate to Leroux’s classic novel. I think this is a first in the history of the Opera Ghost. Having been horribly burned by a couple of newer independent movie adaptations last week (because I’ll try nearly anything with Erik’s name attached), I needed a fresh reminder of that old favorite. Thus empowered, I plowed ahead into this story.

Author Rick Lai is a name well-known in the circles of pulp scholars that operate around the Wold Newton Universe, or as I like to refer to it, the Mother of All Crossovers. Mostly he’s known for his chronologies of The Shadow and Doc Savage, two of the biggest guns in the arsenal of pulp greatness. Why then would he write this book? Because many WNU scholars are inspired to write in the midst of their research, regardless of how well their fiction skills are honed, or not as the case may be.

Leroux once stated that he explained absolutely everything in his novel except for the mysterious shadow who shared the Phantom’s underground lair and accompanied him to Box 5. Piecing together what little evidence there was offered, and knowing the influence the Phantom of the Opera would have on Shadow pulp writer Walter B. Gibson, Lai has given us the identity of that mysterious shadow in the form of The Revenant. The conceit is that Erik trained two disciples. Leroux’s novel chronicled the training of one of them, and hinted at the existence of the other. His Disciple of Life who would receive the training of his musical genius was Christine Daae, whom in his madness Erik believed was pure enough to love him for who he was. The other, his Disciple of Death, is The Revenant, whom Erik trained with his secrets of assassination and subterfuge. The result is that the Revenant becomes a prototype pulp crimefighter a generation before the greats of the pulp age would take center stage.

In fact, it’s made pretty obvious at every turn that the Revenant is the prototype for my favorite of the pulp greats, The Shadow. She’s got the hat, the cloak, the menacing laugh, the training, the gift for disguise, the use of agents… everything. And in standard WNU practice, the lines of heritage are drawn as it’s ultimately revealed in the author’s afterward that the Revenant would one day be the Shadow’s mother. This is hardly a spoiler by the time you get to the end if you know anything about the character. And if you don’t, it’s a non-issue because the story has nothing to do with the Shadow.

The story itself unfolds like a serialized adventure, the chapters being self-contained mini-adventures that tie together for a larger whole. The bulk of the stories deal with the Revenant going up against the house Cagliostro and the Black Coats (look those up if you don’t know) and piecing together her army of acolytes. Presumably this is part one of a trilogy, with part three as yet unreleased. Book one of a side trilogy has also been released. There are really only a couple of bits concerning the Phantom, revolving around the Revenant’s origin story, and the Phantom’s death. The rest is pure pulp cheese, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, except maybe with some understanding of writing and editing.

Between the Phantom and the Shadow, my interest in the Revenant kept me moving through this at breakneck speed. Had I slowed down and lost any momentum, I might have dwelled on just how craptastic the writing and editing actually are. Whole ideas are repeated and reintroduced ad nauseum, spelling and grammar are practically non-existent, and the entire presentation comes across like some no-talent hack wrote some fan-fic for NaNoWriMo. But… the idea was awesome enough for me to want more, being an otherwise incredibly loyal thread of connection between two of my favorite characters. Not only did I finish this one quickly, I have the other volumes lined up. And I’ll get to them eventually, after I visit some books with some understanding of sentence structure.

For the sake of categorization, this is Project: Monster just because the Phantom is more at home there and his protégé isn’t any less of a monster, but you can cross-reference this with Modern Age Myths just on account of this being a WNU novel.

3 stars

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