Barry Reese is one of the leading figures in the New Pulp movement, and one would be hard-pressed to ask why, given his prolific output and consistently high quality of work. With The Adventures of Lazarus Gray, Reese not only launches into the adventures of a brand-new creation, but he also sets the tone for Pro Se Press’ Sovereign City. And it’s a damn good start.
We’re introduced to the titular hero as an amnesiac who washes up on the shores of Sovereign City. The only key he has to his identity is a medallion around his neck which bares the name Lazarus Gray on the back. Taking this as his name, Gray establishes himself as a force for good in the corrupt Sovereign City, opening up the offices of Assistance Unlimited. His aides include Morgan Watts, a former figure in Sovereign’s underworld; Eun Jiwon, a Korean martial artist with a fiery temper; and Samantha Grace, a socialite with no shortage of fighting skills and intelligence. Together they take on a number of cases in Sovereign City, ranging from simple acts of crime but seeming more often than not to lean towards the supernatural and running afoul of figures from Gray’s previous life as a member of the occult organization known as the Illuminati.
If you’ve read any number of Reese’s work over the past several years, you already know what to expect of him—great characterization, tense action sequences, and entertaining stories. And as usual, Reese delivers. The threats Reese comes up with for Assistance Unlimited and the backstory behind Gray are easily the two most interesting aspects of this collection. My personal favorite choices of villains are Gray’s recurring nemesis, Walther Lunt and the Claw. Some may know that the Claw is actually a public domain character that first appeared in Lev Gleason Publications back in the 30s. If you find some images of him online, he looks somewhat goofy and is pretty much the epitome of everything that was wrong with the “Yellow Peril” craze. But Reese is able to tone that down and instead crafts a Claw who is incredibly threatening and terrifying while avoiding the racial problems that dogged the original incarnation.
The backstory behind the Illuminati is also great. I’m a sucker for stories involving secret societies (or at least I am when they’re well-told), and Reese does a great job of giving us just the barest hints of his version of the Illuminati while still keeping them shrouded in mystery. Particularly interesting is Miya Shimada, Gray’s former lover whom he brought into the society and who seems to have more ambiguity than her fellow Illuminatus, Lunt. The dynamic between them leaves the possibility for future stories really fascinating.
The members of Assistance Unlimited are similarly great, with Eun and Samantha being the standouts in my mind. Both these characters are well-written and extremely capable. Morgan doesn’t make as much of an impact in the early stories, but towards the end of the collection in “The God of Hate,” he starts to take more of a central role and becomes much more interesting.
Surprisingly enough, the character who held the least appeal for me was Gray himself. It’s not because Reese writes a bad character, but it feels at times that Gray is a bit too stoic and a bit too good at his job. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed “The God of Hate” more than any other story in this collection, because it’s the one where we really get the feeling that the odds are stacked against the hero.
But that aside, the collection is very good and even when things seem like they’re too easy for the hero, the stories never fail to entertain. If you’re a fan of The Rook series, you should definitely check out this collection. Especially since the Rook makes an appearance in one of the tales.