Book Review: Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

0804136572.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Zombies are one of the biggest things going on in horror fiction these days. There are countless novels about them in every conceivable situation. But what about zombies and super-heroes? I know that Marvel Comics has put out some comics and graphic novels about the Marvel Universe dealing with a zombie apocalypse, but EX-HEROES was the first supers vs. zombies story I’ve encountered in prose format.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

The plot of EX-HEROES is pretty straight-forward. It’s set in a world very much like our own, except that a few, mostly minor-powered, super-heroes began appearing a couple years previously. Then, inexplicably, a catastrophic zombie pandemic occurred, essentially wiping out human civilization. Many of the super-heroes perished in the initial outbreak or its immediate aftermath. Those who survive manage to gather a few hundred human survivors inside a Hollywood movie studio, which they convert into a fortress. The survivors must deal with the problem of trying to scavenge the necessary staples of life while fighting off zombie hordes as well as what I can only describe as some zombified super-villains. The premise is played straight in EX-HEROES, always a difficult task in super-hero prose, and there’s a genuine sense of menace and danger throughout.

Clines is a terrific writer who has generally done a great job of developing the personalities and backstories of the super-heroes as well as crafting a unique origin for a zombie apocalypse (I won’t spoil the specifics of that, save to mention that it is very well done). He alternates between chapters depicting the current plot and chapters detailing the super-heroes’ backstories, which also present the lead-up to the zombie apocalypse. This structure worked very well to both build tension and explain exactly what was going on. EX-HEROES is a truly vivid piece of storytelling.

I feel obligated to note that there is one major plot hole in the novel that practically invalidates the entire premise. One of the surviving super-heroes is named Zzzap. He is essentially a man who has been transformed in a teeny-tiny star, with all the advantages that that implies. Nice guy, apparently, though we never really get a sense of his personality, but he’s stuck in that form. In the climax of the novel, we see Zzzap fly through the heads of hundreds of zombies, incinerating what’s left of their minds and rendering them inert, accomplishing this feat within a few seconds. Just prior to this, another character asks him why he doesn’t do just this and he says that he finds it gross. Sorry, Zzzap, it really doesn’t matter if you find it “gross.” Human civilization has collapsed and the few remaining human survivors are menaced by over five million zombies in the Los Angeles area alone. I’m sure that the human survivors who are forced to shove pikes through zombie skulls while fighting for their lives also find that pretty darn “gross.” Zzzap should have been out there destroying a couple hundred thousand zombies a day, every day, taking care of the whole problem in a couple weeks at worst, long before the start of the novel. It seems obvious that Zzzap should not have been included as a character in EX-HEROES; he’s simply too powerful compared to the rest of the heroes. But I guess since Zzzap is squeamish it’s ok.

That one issue aside, I heartily recommend EX-HEROES, particularly to super-hero fans, or those looking for an entirely original kind of zombie novel. It was a quick, fun read. There is a sequel, EX-PATRIOTS, though I frankly have no idea where Clines plans to take the story next. The current batch of foes is left defeated or destroyed by the end of EX-HEROES, so I can only imagine that the story will go in an entirely new direction. I’m looking forward to more from Clines.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson

In the past few decades we’ve seen a number of efforts to showcase what superheroes in the “Real World” might look like: of course there is Alan Moore’s pathbreaking WATCHMEN comic series (1986-87), along with the 2009 movie version; the long-running WILD CARDS series (1987-present); and the HEROES TV series (2006-10), among many others. For those of us who enjoy stories about superheroes, it’s always fun to imagine what our own world might be like if superheroes were “real.” Raymond Benson, one of the authors selected to write some additional James Bond novels after Ian Fleming’s death, has written THE BLACK STILETTO as his own entry in this sub-genre.

THE BLACK STILETTO is set during the late 1950s and follows the adventures of a small-town girl, Judy Cooper, who travels from a broken home to New York City and ultimately becomes the world’s first (and only) costumed vigilante/superhero. The book is told from three perspectives. The first are entries from Judy’s diary. Her voice in the diary entries is fairly convincing. Judy is a young, simple girl, without much education, and is new to the big city. She is a kind of naïf, and while that works for story purposes, her prose is not as engaging as a more sophisticated narrator’s might be. My only qualm about this kind of perspective is that it drains some of the immediacy of the action and excitement from the story as they are later retellings of things that happened to Judy, who later records them in her diary when safe back home. As we’re reading, we know that everything turns out fine for Judy, or else she wouldn’t be calmly writing about them. We gain a little reflection from Judy on why she did things and how she feels about them later, but I’m not sure that the trade-off is worth it. It’s an interesting narrative device in any case.

While Judy’s chapters are contemporaneous with her ‘50s adventures, the remaining two perspectives are from the present day. The first is Judy’s son Martin, who is a bit of a nebbish. We need Martin’s perspective to give us some context in the present-day because Judy is, sadly, no longer in a position where we can speak for herself: she is in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Judy worked under her secret identity for an undetermined period of time, then retired to a relatively normal life to raise her son, all without the public ever discovering who was behind the Black Stiletto’s mask. The final perspective, and the one with the fewest number of chapters, is Roberto Ranelli, a mafia hitman Judy tangled with early in her career. She was responsible for killing his twin brother (also a Mafioso) and putting him in prison. He gets out fifty years later and comes back for revenge. Roberto is a pretty twisted, evil guy, and provides some much-needed tension for the modern-day portion of the story. These chapters hold a real sense of menace that is missing from some of the other parts of the book, and this present-day plotline is wrapped-up nicely, if just a little unsatisfactorily. I was actually a little surprised that Judy’s granddaughter Gina didn’t end up kicking butt in the finale. I was pretty sure that Benson was setting Gina up to take up Judy’s crimefighting in the modern day, but that didn’t happen. Oh well, maybe in the sequel, as this seemed a lost opportunity.

I’d actually have liked to see Judy’s abilities played up a little more strongly, and hope that happens in the sequels. She has a number of minor abilities – enhanced speed, fighting prowess, strength, hearing and vision, healing abilities – none of which are superhuman per se, but they give her edges that the ordinary bad guys she encounters don’t have. Does she have actual super powers? Well, that’s never made clear. I’d say it’s strongly implied, but never spelled out.

I give this one 3.5 stars out of five. I really, really wanted to like this one. The premise is terrific and has lots of potential, but I was left wanting more. Much more. It ended being just a little clichéd and without much substance. This is fairly light action fodder, without a great deal of depth. I will watch for the sequel, as I understand that an entire series is eventually planned, but I do sincerely hope that the next installment is better – the next needs to be more engagingly written and faster paced.

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Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

I’m a comics fan, though I don’t read them much any more, and I generally enjoy superhero prose. Other than Marvel and DC novelizations and adaptations, this genre used to be pretty hard to come by, save for George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series and John Varley’s old Superheroes anthology. In the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of superhero fiction – which I’m glad to see – and this is one of the most popular and widely-known of these recent efforts.

Please note that some mild plot spoilers follow.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is really two interlinked stories, told in first-person perspective in alternating chapters. The first concerns Dr. Impossible, a super-villain “evil genius” who has been defeated a dozen times by the super-heroes of the setting and begins the novel in prison. As an evil genius who always has a plan, he quickly escapes to try to take over the world again. The second story is told from the perspective of Fatale, a novice cyborg superheroine who has just been invited to join the world’s premier superhero team. She and her teammates are desperate to find and stop Dr. Impossible, not the least of which because he is suspect numero uno in the death of the world’s most powerful superhero.

Grossman examines and in some cases deconstructs the various tropes we have come to expect in all comic-book superhero stories. Present here are analogues of all the major superheroes (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.), along with some unexpected ones (e.g., there is a retired superheroine who is an adult analogue of Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia). Everyone in the book is flawed, heroes and villains alike – which adds to the book’s charm – but it’s clear that Grossman loves the genre, unlike some authors (who shall remain nameless here) who set out to deconstruct and thereby destroy the genres they dissect. Characterization is thorough and vivid, the plot is clever with plenty of action and plotting, and the dialogue is witty. Grossman is an extremely talented writer and I hope we see some more fiction from him soon. Soon I Will Be Invincible came out in 2008 – what’s taking you so long, man?

The novel is action-packed, insightful, funny, and at times, poignant. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I give this one 4 stars out of 5, and I’d have rated it higher had the ending been stronger. If you enjoy superhero comics or prose at all, you should check this one out, as it made quite a splash when it came out, and is a strong entry in the genre.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Masked, edited by Lou Anders

An anthology of fifteen stories and novellas (several pieces are pretty darn long) about superheroes and -villains. Sure, we’ve all read these kinds of collections before, and they’re usually very much hit-or-miss affairs, but this is a really good collection.

I’ll provide a few thoughts on each story (with minor plot spoilers, but I won’t ruin any endings or big twists, I promise).

“Cleansed and Set in Gold” by Matthew Sturges: This is one of the strongest openings to an anthology I’ve read. It takes place in a world beset by seemingly unstoppable monsters who have already killed that world’s most powerful superheroes. A second-string super with a mysterious power must save the day. (And that quick summary doesn’t capture any of this story’s magic. You are just going to have to read it because I wouldn’t dare spoiler it.)

“Where Their Worm Dieth Not” by James Maxey: A dark, dark tale dealing with the themes of sin and punishment that riffs off the comic trope that superheroes and villains never really die, they always end up coming back somehow. These first two stories are so good that they make this perhaps the best anthology opening I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across.

“Secret Identity” by Paul Cornell: This one really looks at the issues of secret identities and sexual identities. The Manchester Guardian is one of those heroes – like Shazam, Marvel’s Thor, or The Hulk – who is a normal man part of the time who can transform into a larger-than-life superhero. But what happens when these two forms have different sexual identities? Frankly, it’s confusingly told, with unclear prose and a few too many Britishisms. I didn’t like this one much.

“The Non-Event” by Mike Carey: Second-string supervillains getting involved in a bank heist. Very interesting powers (and effects of those powers on the world around them). I liked this one a lot.

“Avatar” by Mike Baron: An ordinary person decides to become a vigilante. Brutally realistic and a very powerful story.

“Message from the Bubblegum Factory” by Daryl Gregory: I really don’t want to give much away regarding the plot of this one so as to not spoil it for other readers. I’ll just say that it’s a very good story, well-told, and set mostly inside one of those super-prisons they incarcerate super-powered folks in.

“Thug” by Gail Simone: Written in a kind of “Flowers for Algernon” prose format, this story is another of my favorites in the collection about a minor supervillain and why he ended up the way he did. Poignant stuff.

“Vacuum Lad” by Stephen Baxter: This one wasn’t exactly a superhero kind of story, in my view, being set in a near-future world where the worst nightmares of global warming believers have come true but is otherwise our world. There are no costumed heroes or villains, just a young man who seems to be able to survive exposure to vacuum. The reason why he has this ability is kind of interesting, but overall I was disappointed in this story, which just seemed out-of-place in this anthology.

“A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows” by Chris Roberson: Really spooky and evocative pulp vigilante story involving Mexican magic and some other cool abilities. I’d love to see more stories about the protagonist.

“Head Cases” by Peter David and Kathleen David: The worst story in the book. Boring, boring, boring. Set in a bar. I have no real idea what happens in it, and couldn’t care less.

“Downfall” by Joseph Mallozzi: This story was way too long. Mediocre and not much of it stuck with me. Eminently forgettable.

“By My Works You Shall Know Me” by Mark Chadbourn: A hero and his archenemy locked into mortal combat as they each strive to take the other down in a long-term campaign. Nice twists and turns. Good stuff.

“Call Her Savage” by Marjorie M. Liu: A weird alternate history story, with the Americans allied with the Chinese against the British empire. The backstory is important, but it’s poorly presented in dribs and drabs, and never really sucked me in. Also, not much on superpowers.

“Tonight We Fly” by Ian McDonald: Cute little story about what happens when heroes and villains grow old.

“A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (and Villains Too)” by Bill Willingham: A nice long novella told in A-Z sub-sections, each named after a different character, that describes a massive battle royale by assorted heroes and villains. Nothing too unusual happens here, but it’s nice to see a titanic comic book brawl and its lead-up described in prose format.

As I’ve noted, I didn’t care for a few of the stories, but I have to give this one 4.5 stars out of 5 because of the strength of the remaining tales. I really, really enjoyed this one, and would love to see a follow-up volume, also edited by Lou Anders and featuring many of these authors.

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers