3 new scif-fi and fantasy book covers, against a fantasy world landscape of blue mountains

The Scarlet Pimpernel and the birth of the superhero?

They seek him here. They seek him there. Those Frenchies seek him everywhere. Is he in Heaven? Or is he in Hell? That damned, illusive pimpernel.

Sir Peter Blackney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (by Baroness Orczy)

One of the books that caught our eye in this month’s recently acquired fantasy titles was Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman, a novel in which the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel is reimagined as a hero who rescues vampire aristocrats from the guillotine. This newest incarnation aside, The Scarlet Pimpernel has had a long and varied history.

The first time The Scarlet Pimpernel saw print was in 1908 in the novel of that name by Baroness Orczy. The novel was based on a highly successful play (also by Baroness Orczy) that took London by storm a few years earlier. The book would go on to spawn a host of sequels to wide acclaim, as well as numerous films including The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), starring David Niven and Margaret Leighton.

However, we think the major cultural impact this historical novel has had on our modern times, is its role in the birth of the superhero genre. The scarlet Pimpernel is a rich, camp aristocrat with a double life; a man with a secret identity, a master of disguise and weaponry, who has an alter ego that only a few of his closest friends know. This master fighter also wears a cape and a mask and is constantly outwitting villains and engaged in heroic deeds of daring-do. As his author described him, he is a “reckless daredevil”.

So far, so Superman, but the clincher we think is that Marvel co-creator Stan Lee was obsessed by the book as a boy and went on in this adult life to acknowledge the influence of the books and the Scarlet Pimpernel character in his work. He is even on record as saying that the the Scarlet Pimpernel was “the first character who could be called a superhero”. We rest our case!

Have a browse of this and other new science fiction and fantasy below:

Scarlet / Cogman, Genevieve
“It is 1793 and the French Revolution is in full swing. Vampires are a normal part of society across Europe — usually rich and aristocratic, they have slaked the guillotine’s thirst in large numbers. The mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, a disguised British noble, and his League are heroically rescuing dozens of aristocrats and helpless victims from France, both human and vampire. Eleanor Dalton is an English housemaid working for the vampiric Baroness of Basing. Eleanor’s highest aspiration is to one day become a modiste. But when the Scarlet Pimpernel and his wife come to visit, Eleanor discovers she resembles someone important. She is asked to impersonate a French aristocrat. Soon, she finds herself swept up in magic and intrigue beyond her wildest dreams.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Shanghai immortal / Chao, A. Y.
“Pawned by her mother to the King of Hell as a child, Lady Jing is half-vampire, half-hulijing fox-spirit, and all sasshole. As the King’s ward, she has spent the past ninety years running errands, dodging the taunts of the spiteful hulijing courtiers, and trying to control her explosive temper – with varying levels of success. So when Jing overhears the courtiers plotting to steal a priceless dragon pearl from the King, she seizes her chance to expose them, once and for all. With the help of a gentle mortal tasked with setting up the Central Bank of Hell, Jing embarks on a wild chase for intel, first through Hell and then mortal Shanghai.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

House of gold / Rwizi, C. T.
“A corporate aristocracy descended from Africa rules a colony on a distant planet. Life here is easy — for the rarified and privileged few. The aristocrats enjoy a powerful cybernetic technology that extends their life spans and ensures their prosperity. Those who serve them suffer under a heavy hand. But within this ruthless society are agents of hope and change. In a secret underwater laboratory, a separatist cult has created a threat to the aristocracy. The Primes are highly intelligent, manipulative products of genetic engineering, designed to lead a rebellion. Enabling their mission are the Proxies, the Primes’ bodyguards and lifelong companions bound to their service. When the cult’s hideout is attacked, Proxies Nandipa and Hondo rush to the rescue…” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Winter’s gifts / Aaronovitch, Ben
“When retired FBI Agent Patrick Henderson calls in an ‘X-Ray Sierra India’ incident, the operator doesn’t understand. He tells them to pass it up the chain till someone does. That person is FBI Special Agent Kimberley Reynolds. Leaving Quantico for snowbound Northern Wisconsin, she finds that a tornado has flattened half the town – and there’s no sign of Henderson. Things soon go from weird to worse, as neighbours report unsettling sightings, key evidence goes missing, and the snow keeps rising – cutting off the town, with no way in or out… Something terrible is awakening. As the clues lead to the coldest of cold cases – a cursed expedition into the frozen wilderness – Reynolds follows a trail from the start of the American nightmare, to the horror that still lives on today…” (Adapted from Catalogue)

Veniss underground / VanderMeer, Jeff
“In his debut novel, literary alchemist Jeff VanderMeer takes us on an unforgettable journey. First, Nicholas, a would-be Living Artist, seeks to escape his demons in the shadowy underground — but in doing so makes a deal with the devil himself. In her fevered search for him, his twin sister, Nicola, spins her own unusual and hypnotic tale as she discovers the hidden secrets of the city. And finally, haunted by Nicola’s sudden, mysterious disappearance and gripped by despair, Shadrach, Nicola’s lover, embarks on a mythic journey to the nightmarish levels deep beneath the surface of the city to bring his love back to light…” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The battle drum : a novel / El-Arifi, Saara
“Anoor is the first blue-blooded ruler of the Wardens’ Empire. But when she is accused of a murder she didn’t commit, her reign is thrown into turmoil. She must solve the mystery and clear her name without the support of her beloved, Sylah. Sylah braves new lands to find a solution for the hurricane that threatens to destroy her home. But in finding answers, she must make a decision: should she sacrifice her old life in order to raise up her sword once more? Hassa’s web of secrets grows ever thicker as she finds herself on the trail of crimes in the city. Her search uncovers the extent of the atrocities of the empire’s past and present. Now she must guard both her heart and her land. The three women find their answers, but not the answers they wanted. The drumbeat of change thrums throughout the world. And it sings a song of war…” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The Cognomina codex / Maikranz, D. Eric
“Evan Michaels is back in a new life as a Syrian refugee. When strange memories of his former lives lead him back to Zurich, headquarters of his old family of fellow reincarnationists, the Cognomina, he must reacquire their trust to rejoin their ranks. On the last leg of this journey, he is intercepted by an excommunicated member of the Cognomina who holds some serious grudges. She’s on a mission to wipe out large portions of the world’s population to save the planet from destruction. She proposes a union of the Cognomina and her own group of reincarnationists, but her true goals are dark indeed, and her resources are vast. Evan finds himself at the start of a war between two factions of immortal beings, each with a radically different vision for life on earth.” (Adapted from Catalogue)

The Carnivale of Curiosities / Gibbs, Amiee
“In Victorian London, where traveling sideshows are the very pinnacle of entertainment, there is no more coveted ticket than Ashe and Pretorius’ Carnivale of Curiosities. Each performance is a limited engagement, and London’s elite boldly dare the dangerous streets of Southwark to witness the Carnivale’s astounding assemblage of marvels. For a select few, however, the real show begins behind the curtain. Rumors abound that the show’s proprietor, Aurelius Ashe, is more than an average magician. It’s said that for the right price, he can make any wish come true…” (Adapted from Catalogue)