I have long been a fan of Rick Lai's writing, both his speculative essays about characters from adventure fiction and his own published fiction. Like myself, Rick is a fan of Philip Jose Farmer's writings about the Wold Newton Family, a vast family tree of literary and pulp heroes and villains, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to hang out with Rick for the past three years at FarmerCon, the annual celebration of the late great science fiction grandmaster's career. Rick is an expert at uncovering previously unrevealed connections between characters both well-known and obscure. He is also a master chronologist, as his books covering the timelines of the Shadow and Doc Savage's careers demonstrate. Rick's knowledge of pop culture and ability to blend different works together in fascinating ways is second to none, and it shows most of all in his fiction writing. SISTERS OF THE SHADOWS is meant to take place in the same continuity as his SHADOWS OF THE OPERA trilogy of books, and features the feud between Josephine Balsamo (foe of Maurice Leblanc's gentleman thief Arsene Lupin) and Irina Putine (aka Irene Tupin, the character ably played by Mary Maude in the highly entertaining Spanish horror film LA RESIDENCIA, here portrayed as Arsene's half-sister.) Rick blends characters from detective and crime fiction (French orn otherwise), spaghetti westerns, Japanese and Chinese action films, and many other sources into an enthralling collection of connected stories spanning a decade's worth of events. Although many references may not be immediately recognizable to the reader, Rick includes a "Cast of Characters" list that includes each character's creator. A little Googling should match the character and the creator with the work or works the former appears in. I love crossovers like this, being a fan of similar works such as Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and Kim Newman's ANNO DRACULA cycle, as well as the aforementioned Wold Newton writings by Farmer, which Rick alludes to several times here. With all of these works, spotting the references, and identifying ones you missed, is almost much fun as reading the tales themselves. Another of Rick's strengths as a writer is that he is excellent at writing well-developed, strong female characters, both heroic and villainous. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the unique "friendly enemy" relationship between Irina's friend and partner Blythe Furnace and Josephine's comrade Marga Sandorf. I highly recommend this excellent book by a friend of mine who also happens to be a first-rate author and literary scholar.
Before I get started I want to say that I recommend this book. I will kind of spend more time below on the areas were I was disappointed but don't let that mislead you, I do like this book and think many will like it even more. If your a fan of New Pulp, or 19th century literature, or of the Wold Newton concept, or just someone who wants more genre fiction with strong female leads, both this and the Shadows of the Opera series are a must read.
I'm not a big fan of Rick's Vampire mythos, and I imagine a lot of Vampire purists would feel the same way (I'm not a purest though) but fortunately their only really directly part of 1 story.
I'm reviewing this before Shadows of the Opera because in concept this premise is more appealing to me then the adventures of the more heterosexual Shadow distaff counterpart The Revenant. But Shadows of The Opera was longer in the making in Rick's imagination so it's stories are more well developed, so far anyway.
The concept of an ongoing battle of wits between a clever female Detective and a cunning Femme Fatale Villainess, who have also been Sapphic lovers, further complicated by having a shared half sister who's rather naive. Is what first made me want to get this. Thing is that premise only really seems to describe 2 of stories, "The Lady in the Black Gloves" and "Corridors of Deceit". All the stories are good, but I was hoping more like those 2.
The earlier ones set up their back-story and build the universe, but in doing that I feel the last stories of Retribution in Blood should have also been re-printed here at the beginning, those stories directly explain what happened, these prologue stories are mostly just about how other characters learn it (none of them get quite the whole story).
And then after that the story seems to get taken over by the unique frienemy relationship between Marga, Josephine's loyal enforcer, and Blythe, Irene's one eyed BFF. Which is very interesting, but might annoy some people who don't like when the Fonzi syndrome happens. A similar phenomenon kind of happens in Shadows of The Opera with the Jade Seraph, but not as much.
The sequel will no doubt continue that storyline, but I hope it also gets back to exploring the complex relationship between Josephine and Irene and their Sister. I have to say how easily Sabine was talked out of her belief that Josephine hated her was disappointing, I hope that resurfaces.
The last stories are more like epilogues, the Western themed one was of limited appeal to me, but the Boer War one was pretty clever.
One of the most fascinating in this continuity is using Paul Feval's The Blackcoats criminal empire to connect various fictional criminals, it's a natural decision, but Rick does it well. It's a very Nerdy series that this Nerd loves. The Afterward is very informative for those who may not be familiar with all the characters Rick drew on.
Sisters of the Shadows: The Cagliostro Curse is another great collection of interconnected short stories by Rick Lai. These are "Wold Newton" stories that spins out of his Shadows of the Opera series. This "side sequel" focuses on the conflict between Josephine Balsamo, the Countess Cagliostro, who is a member of the Black Coats (criminal empire written in France in the 1800s in a series of novels and republished by Black Coat Press), and Irene Tupin/Chupin/Irina Putine who is the sister of Arsene Lupin and based on a character from a horror movie and who becomes Josephine's enemy and a detective. "Wold Newton" is a reference to a concept put forth by Philip Jose Farmer, that tries to link together various fictitious characters into a consistent universe (am WAY oversimplifying it). Some don't care for the concept, and all the characters and hints can be confusing to many not familiar with the original stories that come form (which includes me to a degree) and this can be off putting to some (instead of leading them to read the originals, which is what usually happens in my case).
As noted, this volume is part of a "side sequel" to the "Shadows of the Opera" series. One more volume is planned in this side series.
The basic setup of the series was actually started in the last two stories of the Shadows of the Opera: Retribution in Blood. But you get information in the stories here that help set it up. As young girls, both had been sent to a harsh boarding school. Josephine had, in the first Shadow of the Opera volume, sworn to her mother to take vengeance on Lupin and his family. Thus Josephine tormented Irene, and set things up for her to be killed. However, she survived. Josephine soon joined the Black Coats along with several other fellow students from this school, who continued to torment each other.
This is not a novel, but a collection of 12 short stories, which proceed in chronological order. While they are more or less standalone, they should be read in order, as they progress the story of Irene and Josephine and their associates. Many of the stories, however, start in the past to give background on various characters who are important in that story. 7 stories are reprints, but revised. 6 of those are from the first six Tales of the Shadowmen volumes.
Also included is an afterwards that explains the origin of the various characters, and a list of characters and their creators. This helps greatly in understanding many of the characters and their origins.
At present the first book in the Shadows of the Opera series is published by Wild Cat Books, but don't know if it will be reprinted by Black Coat Press. This book and the main sequel to Shadows of the Opera are from Black Coat Press. At least one more book is planned in this side sequel line. I look forward to it.