Black And White
by Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge, fantasy (2009)
Spectra, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-553-38631-8

Black And White is an action fantasy featuring superheroes. While lacking the sardony and gritty vulgarity of Garth Ennis' Billy Butcher series, this one carries the same underlying message: it takes more than a costume and some super powers to make one a hero.

As the first book in an intended series, Black And White goes back and forth from the past to the present, the present being after year 2112. In this world, superheroes are present to save the day, and they operate under an umbrella organization called Corp-Co. Just like it is in the Billy Butcher series, Corp-Co isn't just a organization working for the greater good, it is also pretty much a PR and marketing agency for these superheroes, or "extrahumans" as they are called. The Corp-Co also runs the Academy of Extrahuman Excellence, where extrahumans are schooled to become superheroes.

Callie Bradford (code name: Iridium) and Joannie Green (code name Jet) first met in the Academy, where they were outcasts. Callie's father was considered a rogue extrahuman for daring to go against Corp-Co, and as a result, Callie entered the Academy as the daughter of a criminal. Her power is light-based, by the way. Joannie has a more troubled past. Her power is drawn from Shadow, and that's Shadow with a capital S. The problem here is that Shadow extrahumans invariably go mad due to the voices they keep hearing in their heads - voices that compel them to kill and destroy. Joannie's father killed her mother in a violent fit of insanity, and poor Joannie entered the Academy with the taint of her father's horrific crime shadowing her interactions with her peers. You know how cruel kids and even adults can be in school, I'm sure.

Joannie and Callie were supposed to be two best friends against the world, but as adults, they are bitter enemies. Iridium acts as a vigilante extrahuman, keeping peace in the Wreck City district of New Chicago her own way: by making sure that the criminals and the corrupt cops don't go out of line. Jet is the model poster extrahuman for Corp-Co, taking photos with politicians and appearing on talk shows to further the extrahuman agenda. But Jet genuinely believes that she is a hero and she intends to capture Iridium, believing that her former best friend can still be rehabilitated.

Black And White has flashbacks that slowly allow the reader to discover how Joannie and Callie could go from best friends to mortal enemies. The story line set in the present has Jet and Iridium individually doing their thing, only to realize too late that they are actually pursuing the same big bad guy. For Jet, her father has discovered a way to infiltrate Corp-Co and shut down the mainframe computer that coordinates the extrahumans' activities, and success will deal a great blow against Corp-Co, whom Jet and her father believe to be corrupt. Iridium, meanwhile, sets out to discover a missing journalist whose latest expose on extrahumans might have made her one dangerous enemy too many.

I have to say, I find Black And White a very entertaining read. Many people, such as Garth Ennis, have done the whole superheroes-against-the-establishment thing before, but the authors have nonetheless created a very interesting new world here. It's nothing I have never read before, but the authors have done a pretty good job in ensuring that the world and its characters remain fresh and intriguing. The build-up is great. I find myself equally invested in both the flashback story and the two stories taking place in the present time line. Despite the fact that I know that the story set in the past will not end happily, I find myself nonetheless rooting for the best to happen to Joannie and Callie, because the authors have succeeded very well in creating two teenage outcast characters that I can relate and empathize with.

As for the story lines set in the present, well, I will say this: the stories are actually very engaging, and for a while I am torn between wanting the authors to focus on the story lines set in the present or the flashbacks to the past. Oh, and I have to warn you: Jet is a very frustrating character in this story as her actions can easily be considered too stupid for words. I'd suggest that you exercise some patience with her. There is a pretty reasonable explanation for her behavior in this story. Besides, while she may not be the smartest bulb around, she has the right intentions and she wants to do the right thing. For a young lady that can go crazy at any time, she's not too bad. Just be warned that you have to be very patient with Jet when she messes up in this story. Iridium is a more straightforward character as a character who wants to go against the establishment. She has the unfortunate foot-in-mouth disease that plagues way too many heroines in the urban fantasy genre - there is never a moment where Iridium doesn't have a groan-inducing "sassy" line - but she is a little smarter than Jet here. Still, if you ask me by the end of the book which woman is more interesting in terms of depths and potential future character complexity, I'd say it's Jet.

One issue that I have with this story is that the heroines ultimately talk the talk more than they walk the walk. Maybe it's because of their youth - both Iridium and Jet are 23, I believe - but they are actually very dependent on father figure characters in this book when it comes to making major decisions. Both women trust men way too easily. In this case, the men in question don't even come off as halfway trustworthy, a fact that reflects very poorly on the heroines' ability to judge people. In Jet's case, it's not that bad, given that she's halfway crazy and, for all the flying around she's been doing, she's actually a pretty sheltered lady. Iridium doesn't have such excuse though. She's supposed to be this tough lady that has managed to have hardened crime bosses in fear of her, but her actions and thought processes in this book make her come off as young and naïve instead. I can only wonder how many of her decisions are made for her by her father.

And really, when the villain reveals his plot in the grand finale, I have to laugh. Not only is the villain a classic cartoon character who seems to have crafted his plot only to tell our heroines in full graphic details about his plans, the plot of his makes me laugh because it's pretty ridiculous and over the top. Nonetheless, the book ends on an unexpectedly inspiring note, as Jet realizes that there is more to being a superhero than merely having powers and a cool costume. On a most amusing note, a character that has been portrayed as a villain all this while turns out to be one of the few genuine superheroes at loose in this world, heh. I really like this turn of event.

Black And White at the end of the day is a compelling read for me because of the strongly drawn emotional components that have me relating to and rooting for the heroines despite their massive fumbles here and there. This story also moves at a brisk pace and the authors have created some top-notch engaging prose here. The heroines' naïveté can be a big minus, especially in Iridium's case. But all things considered, Black And White is a most entertaining read that is rather different from most of the usual urban fantasy or paranormal stories out there.

Rating: 84

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