Book Review: The Reign of the Kingfisher by T. J. Martinson

The Reign of the Kingfisher

T.J. Martinson

March 5, 2019

The Reign of the Kingfisher from award-winning debut author T.J. Martinson, is the story of the superhero called “the Kingfisher” who tried to save Chicago 30 years ago. In the present, a masked gunman vows to kill a roomful of hostages one by one unless the police admit that they faked the death of the legendary superhero.

Superhero novel? I’m here for it, especially when it’s as well-written and thoughtful as T.J. Martinson’s debut!

Over thirty years ago, a figure dubbed “the Kingfisher” reigned over Chicago, foiling drug dealers and other street criminals before abruptly disappearing. A body fished out of the river was deemed to be the Kingfisher’s, and the city held a memorial service for the fallen hero. Max Waters, a journalist who not only covered the story but originally came up with the moniker for the vigilante, later wrote a well-received book on the topic. But as the decades pass and crime rises once more, the Kingfisher fades to a distant memory . . .

Until a video shows up online, claiming to be made by the hacktivist group “The Liber-teens.” A man wearing their trademark Robespierre mask has taken three hostages and demands that the police release the official autopsy report on the Kingfisher. If not, he’ll execute his hostages one by one. Max recognizes one of the captives as a man he interviewed for his book, someone the Kingfisher had rescued from a life of crime. He urges the police to look for the other two men involved in that incident, but the cops seem oddly reluctant to act on his information.

Equally chagrined by this inaction, the police detective assigned to protect Max, Jeremiah Combs, secretly reaches out to his disgraced co-worker, Officer Lucinda Tillman, to follow the leads Max has given. Lucinda is on suspension from the force so she has to keep her inquiries on the down low, but her investigations turn up some mighty suspicious goings-on in the police hierarchy above her.

Elsewhere in the city, computer genius Wren is one of many Liber-teens aghast at the use of their name and image in this violent crime. Sure, they believe the cops are corrupt, but they’d never stoop to kidnapping and harming innocent civilians. The anarchic group has trouble agreeing on what they ought to do next, and against her better judgment, Wren is persuaded to hack into the Chicago PD’s servers to release the desired file. But this only makes things worse, and as Wren, Lucinda, Jeremiah, and Max are pulled together to find the kidnapper and rescue the hostages, they find their lives are turning upside down, even as they seek the truth of what really happened to the Kingfisher all those years ago.

I really enjoyed the brisk pacing of this surprisingly dense and thoughtful novel, as we race against time with our heroes to stop a maniac from killing innocent people in his fixation on a superhero long disappeared. A lot happens in this novel, even as Mr. Martinson expertly skewers vigilante superhero tropes, as here where a former criminal speaks bluntly about his own experience with the Kingfisher to Max:

“I want you to keep something in mind when you write this story, Mr. Waters. A lot of people, especially where I’m from, didn’t see the Kingfisher the way the rest of the this city did, the way that a lot of folks like yourself saw him. The Kingfisher wasn’t a hero to a lot of folks who look like myself. He was a villain. This dude beating the hell out of petty criminals—most of them just trying to make a living in a society that didn’t offer them many other options—and leaving them for the CPD to put in jail when he could have just as easily gone and beat some white-collars on the North Side who were committing bigger crimes than we were.”

Mr. Martinson populates this story with some truly remarkable perspectives for the genre, seamlessly melding a fantastic tale to an ultra-realistic present day. The tropes of veteran journalist, rogue cop, and introverted hacker are given fresh life by how grounded the characters are, particularly in their loved ones.

I was also really impressed with how Mr. Martinson conveyed the hacking scenes, something a lot of superhero works, in whatever medium, tend to handwave in a decidedly unpersuasive fashion. Mr. Martinson displays a mastery of computer theory in some truly remarkable prose, as when Wren is trying to locate the kidnapping victims by their cell phone locations:

An SS7 hack is so easy that she’s almost disappointed. Like knocking on a door and it swinging wide open. But once inside, it’s vast, seemingly endless expanses of raw data lapping at distant, planetary shores. She pictures herself as a single data point navigating a three-dimensional model of the world. Because in cyberspace, history is joined to the future. There are numbers. Columns and rows. And her eyes are connected to her fingers, which are connected to her racing thoughts, which are connected to her lips as she whispers the world she has fallen into.

The Reign Of The Kingfisher is a highly entertaining, well thought-out superhero novel that plays almost cinematically as the reader travels from present to past and back again to uncover the truth behind the enigma of the Kingfisher. I’m quite pleased that signs point to a sequel, as I really want to see what happens next, not only because of the compelling writing but also because I’ve come to care about this ragtag crew of crime fighters called to search for a superhero long gone, in a time and place quite different from the social and political milieu that originally allowed him to flourish. T.J. Martinson is a writer to watch out for, and I can’t wait to read what he publishes next.

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