Review: 'Warhead', by Ricardo Delgado
A dark rumpled figure sat on a subway bench next to a semi-conscious arthropod that had defecated in its pants. In a darkened corner of the moving tram, teenage crustaceans giggled like axe murderers as they passed a battered, dirty needle back and forth, injecting each other with a viscous amber liquid. Lights on the metal jalopy flickered on and off like an epileptic seizure.
Standing in the middle of the car while avoiding eye contact with anything that moved, slickly-dressed business mammals rocked with each jolt of the car as they checked their investments on shiny phones while worrying about end-of-the-year bonuses, keeping their ties straight and getting mugged. A skuzzy combination of squid and octopus shoved tentacles lined with stolen watches into the faces of whoever would look at them. (p. 10)
Right away we are plunged into the seamy underside of New Jerusalem. Well – New Jerusalem is almost nothing BUT seamy underside. The whole city is a slum beneath the floating cities of the planet Ishun, which hover serenely overhead.
The floating cities are supposed to be for the elite, but really are not much better. Oh, they do have their polished business districts and fancy upper-class neighborhoods – but Ishun has crime everywhere. So ground-bound New Jerusalem is the real pits!
A later scene provides intriguing historical background.
Onscreen the humanoid raised his arms to quiet the crowd and said, ‘Three thousand years ago this city was founded by a sentient creature from another world. We called him ‘Earthman’. He was scorned, hated and ridiculed. This ‘Astronaut’, as he called himself, united our world like it had never been brought together before. He named New Jerusalem after a city on his own world; a city that he said had never had peace. This Earthman showed us that we could fight corruption on our own world. Well, the time has come to do it again!’ (p. 53)
“There are no human beings in this story …” (p. 9) You might think that the Detective, Number 465250, is human, but you’d be wrong.
In his mid-thirties, the Detective was six feet, four inches of fat and muscle. Piercing ebony eyes saw everything. His face was sharp with a sharper jaw. Olive green skin covered a worn-yet-intense face. Dark green stubble on his chin and a military-style cut on his scalp looked more like anemone tendrils than hair.” (p. 11)
The Detective is a trenchcoated investigator with the New Jerusalem police, whose feared public face is the brutal Synthetic-bred cops:
With the half-dozen or so automatic weapons draped over their shoulders, the Synths exuded intimidation. The crowd around the Synths stole fearful glances when they were not looking. Treaded batons strapped to their sides insured welts and bruises to any dissidents. They were multi-limbed and multi-headed, with hue ebbing and flowing under their metallic skin. Between their transparent joints were millions of tiny wires that surged with light and energy. They had no real eyes, but complex transistors and scanners along their heads gave them the semblance of a face. (p. 12)
The Detective takes no guff from them when he is called to a crime scene at an art museum.
The taller Synth jumped to attention and held one of its claws out in a ‘stop’ gesture. ‘I’m Seventy-Five, Sir.’ It pointed to the smaller Synth. ‘This is number Twenty-One. Uh, I believe this [is] a Synthethics-only Operation, 465250. You don’t have the clearance to –‘
‘Losin’ my patience here,’ grumbled the Detective. ‘Lemme through.’ (p. 13)
The Detective thinks that he has seen it all before, but even he is shocked when the victim turns out to be his ex-girlfriend --
Inside one of the sculpture’s chambers was the body of a young female humanoid. She floated in a lava lamp-like pool of her own blood, her centerfold body cut, twisted and contorted to fit into the sculpture. Her fashion model head faced the ground while blue unblinking eyes stared out at whatever the state of death saw. She floated, mixed with liquid and blood, like a mosquito in amber.
Supple, aqua skin had gone pale in death and the change in light. Octopus tentacle hair lingered in front of her face. A few air bubbles slid out of the tip of her nose and collected in one of her tear ducts. (p. 16)
-- and he is immediately arrested for her murder.
Framed for the murder of an old girlfriend, the Detective must elude a fascist police force, a corrupt boss, a sinister crime lord, and a femme fatale to prove his innocence. (back-cover blurb)
Warhead is a s-f novel by Ricardo Delgado, the well-known Eisner Award-winning comic-book artist (and painter of this book’s wraparound cover) best known for his Age of Reptiles title from Dark Horse Comics. Delgado’s “day job” in the motion picture and TV industry since the early ‘90s has included character design, storyboard art, and visual design for, just to name the anthropomorphic-related features, Dinosaur, Osmosis Jones, The Emperor’s New Groove, The Shaggy Dog, Eragon, The Incredibles (okay, that one’s not ‘morph-related), WALL-E, 9, How to Train Your Dragon, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.
Warhead is Delgado’s first text novel, and it shows. He makes the rookie author’s big no-no of presenting needed background information as a huge expository lump (pages 23-27). Synth cops Twenty-One and Seventy-Five, who are taking the Detective in their patrol floatcar for booking and almost immediate conviction and execution, discuss what they already know, just for the reader’s benefit:
A smooth, mechanical voice came over the Patrol Float speakers. ‘You have entered New Jerusalem Governmental airspace and have been targeted by Mil Tech Branch. Please give your air travel code. You have ten seconds to comply before you are shot down.’ […] ‘You’re kidding?’ said Twenty-One as a particularly large cannon watched them go by. It almost whined in disappointment.
‘Uh-uh,’ said Seventy-Five. ‘As you know, Mil Tech’s the warfare and execution branch of the government. Them and Pol Tech, the political branch, really run the show. Pol Tech snoops on everyone. They report to the Politburo. Politburo gives the order, Mil Tech snuffs you out. The weapons we carry are like toys to the Mil Tech Synths. Don’t ever screw around with those guys. Just let them do what they do, even if the suspect is innocent.’ (pgs. 25-26)
The Detective’s friend and superior Max Ignavus assures him that it will be a quickly cleared-up mistake. But the Detective doesn’t believe in honest mistakes. Somebody has deliberately set him up to take this fall. Since a defendant has the “right” to “an expedient trial and judgment, and […] a swift yet humane execution” (p. 21), his only chance to survive is to take the opportunity of a failed attempt to kill him in his cell, to escape and investigate on his own.
The novel is packed with vivid similes. The city at evening:
New Jerusalem had taken hold of the sunset and sucked it drier than a vampire’s girlfriend. The energy was now in the city’s opium dens, brothels, holographic theaters, electronic stores, neon-lit bars, video arcades, strip joints, street corner temples and curbside churches. (p. 27)
They both turned like they’d done a million times and wound up in Max’ office, a sideways-stacked shoebox of a room full of paperwork that overflowed out of file cabinets like trash out of a landfill. (p. 31)
Stone columns held up the walls, and tapestries draped or hung over each other like a collection of international stamps pasted over an old suit case. Tiny prayers carved into the columns hinted of wishes and desires long past. Display cases overflowed with metal charms in the shapes of hearts, arms, legs, tails, claws, eyes and other appendages that needed to be healed.” (pgs. 39-40)
A slum hotel:
Orange grunge that impersonated carpeting ran from wall to wall like vomit in a nightclub restroom. The shag was infested with dust mites that could pick your pocket. Peeling wallpaper that was pasted on when the Detective was in diapers led up to a front desk covered in brochures for cheap casinos and cheaper restaurants.” (p. 51)
A while later, the late afternoon sun huddled behind the skyscrapers like it was too depressed to be seen.” (p. 104)
New Jerusalem is full of colorful non-humans, most of them also non-mammalian:
Orange-skinned humanoid girls with sea star tentacle hair loitered in the darker corners of the plaza. Short skirts and bubble gum made them look faster than a trash truck on a holiday pick-up to the brash cephalopod teenagers that were trying to woo them with whistles and catcalls. (p. 12)
A grizzled veteran Organic shuffled over to him. Saggy blue skin held up a ham-hock of a humanoid head. Gills exhaled smoke out of his unshaved neck. A burger patty of a hand held a dim stump of a cigar that looked like it had been chomped on for days and kept under a pillow during those nights. (p. 17)
The homeless population was vast and lived underground where it was unsafe but warm. A reptilian drunk collapsed onto a frustrated centipede trinket vendor and a brawl broke out. A crowd gathered. (p. 27)
Behind the front desk was a female who may have been an amphibian, but it was hard to tell because a strict diet of fast foods and cigarettes, combined with years of inactivity had enlarged her to a wart-covered blob of epic proportions about as ugly as an unpopped blackhead. (p. 51)
Arachnid accountants, varanid lawyers and insect bank executives bustled past the Detective, who leaned against a streetlight in front of the seafood place he was supposed to meet Janet. The sign was in a language that the Detective did not understand, but there was a streaming stop-motion clip of a knife chasing a bunch of cartoony sea life that had sprung in exaggerated surprise from inside of a bowl (p. 95)
The population is divided biologically(?) into Organics, Synthetics (who are organic-machine cyborg blends), and androids. It is divided socially/religiously into the barely-tolerant lower-class Arics, Ishunites, and upper-class Geneticists. For all his hard-boiled appearance, the Detective is a devout Aric worshipper. And he is not alone. The Detective is aided in his search for truth by the murder victim’s mega-wealthy brother, a political candidate, who gives him a hundred-thousand unit bankroll to find the real murderer and expose the government power-brokers behind her death and the Detective’s frame-up. He also has friends on the force; honest low-ranking police who believe that he has been set up by corrupt higher-ups. Yet which of his friends are genuine and which are the Trojan horses waiting to betray him?
Warhead is non-Furry but very anthropomorphic. The main characters are almost-human humanoids, and the background characters are humanoid arachnids, cephalopods, arthropods, reptiles, crustaceans, mollusks, and others. The few mammalians do not have a “cute” furry among them. And it is a damn good suspense-thriller whodunit. The horrific “Grannymonster” is worth the price by itself.
The proofreading could certainly be improved, and Delgado’s idea of writing in “street lingo” – “‘Somebody outta move all of these state-care cases off da damn planet […]”; “‘Seen ya talkin’ ta that loser, Steve […]’”; “‘One of my big rules,’ warned the Detective, lowering his voice, ‘is not to mess with anybody that serves ya food or parks yer car.’” (pgs 156-160) – is inconsistent and gets old fast; but those are minor annoyances. For a different “Furry” novel, don’t miss Warhead!