Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1940. The U.S.S. Bransfield, a decommissioned naval destroyer being retrofitted for sale to the British war effort, has been commandeered. The destroyer turns her guns towards Manhattan, targeting a specific hotel… and particularly the vaults beneath it that contain the hidden base of The Shadow. Agents of the force behind the destroyer’s theft steal several highly advanced and improbably effective weapons and scientific instruments, all of which were trophies, reclaimed by The Shadow from other foes he’d brought down over his long career.
Picking up several years after the first meeting between Doc Savage and The Shadow, Empire of Doom reunites the Man of Bronze with the Master of Midnight in a desperate fight against the most dangerous of The Shadow’s long list of adversaries. His name is Shiwan Khan. He calls himself The Golden Master. According to Khan, he is the last descendant of Genghis Khan, and his goal is to finish the job his ancient ancestor started. He intends to amass an army capable of conquering the globe. The theft of the Bransfield is the opening volley of a global campaign designed to bring the world to its knees. The Shadow has faced Khan a handful of times in the past, each time bringing The Golden Master to an inconclusive demise. This time, The Shadow is determined to end him permanently. Doc Savage, however, is more interested in stopping a potentially more dangerous war than the one already raging in Europe rather than fulfilling a personal vendetta. If the American military can be so easily undermined by the combination of super-science and occult secrets being unleashed upon the world, and if one of Doc’s own people can be brought under the sway of The Golden Master, it’ll require the two greatest heroes of the pulp era working together to bring this threat to an end.
As with the previous adventure, Will Murray writes under Lester Dent’s old pen name Kenneth Robeson, and he does so to the absolute hilt. In other words, his track record is still pretty much perfect in this regard. All characters are given maximum presentation, and the story itself feels like it was recovered from a vault of lost pulp classics… with one exception: the story is triple the size of any of its yesteryear counterparts. Talk about your good problems to have. The excitement mounts quite literally from page one and only takes occasional breathers to offer some pulp-level info dumping.
It is such a joy to bring together these characters that mere words cannot suffice. I’ve been a fan of The Shadow for years. As he is to Batman what Doc Savage is to Superman, it’s no big surprise to say I’m gaining new respect and admiration for Doc all the time, to the point where I’m kicking myself for not having given this character equal due when I first discovered The Shadow. The first half of this novel was a kind of tease because it was all I could do to sneak in a few pages here and there. Once I got to the halfway mark, and after I was able to put a couple of other projects to temporary rest, I carved out time and plowed through this because it was killing me not to. The pace of the story demanded I pick up mine and keep up. There are very few novels today that have that sort of effect on me. I wish it were otherwise, because I really miss this kind of immersive experience. I take it where I can and mark it accordingly as special.
If I’m being honest, I truly never expected to see Shiwan Khan feature in a modern novel due to political correctness. His original appearances back in the day are indicative of a kind of racial propaganda / stereotyping of that era known as “The Yellow Peril.” What’s interesting to me in this regard is that the character has not really undergone any changes since his early days. While his style and objectives are essentially the same (with one singular note that marks him as a little more vicious this time that will be explained in-story), he doesn’t speak towards nor stand in for the Eastern nations as perhaps he once might have. Every nation is fair game in his bid for conquest. I suppose anyone can interpret anything how they please, but for my part, I do see the subtleties that mark a huge difference. Khan stands alone here, a megalomanical supervillain doing what he does best: giving our heroes a worthy challenge. Or it may just be that I’m applying my 21st century perception and not seeing an early 20th century symbolism through willful ignorance. When I read the original pulps of the era, such things are inescapable; I acknowledge them as relics of the era and move on. Here, I see the pastiche without the baggage.
Having said all that, the means by which Khan was defeated… THAT was an instrument that’s frighteningly stereotypical of the Yellow Peril era. I won’t reveal it here, but suffice to say it’s the sort of thing that is not only inexcusable from a modern perspective, its usage would be considered quite the anticlimactic letdown regardless of the era of origin. After all of the top-notch 30s and 40s pseudoscience kicking around, this is how we take down an incredible villain? Really? I mean, sure, something like that may feel right at home in one of the original stories, but I expected SO much better from this one, especially after the previous team-up story and all of the buildup for this one. *hangs head in hands* Geez, that was stupid beyond words… These characters are better than this. This managed to set back the civil rights movement another 100 years in one fell swoop, made worse by the fact that The Shadow… well, he knew. He knew all along. Of course he did.
For the more poetically inclined, I’ll point your attention to the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Who says pulps have no classical literary value? This poem has a minor but pivotal role in this story as Doc Savage and The Shadow seek out the legendary Xanadu in search of their quarry. Trust me when I say that fun ensues at all turns. That’s really what this book is in the final analysis: fun at all turns. Check the baggage and enjoy yourself as much as possible. It’s still (mostly) worth it for those who enjoy these pulp characters, even if the ending was most unworthy of them. The one positive thing about it, once something like that has been pulled, it can’t and won’t be pulled again.