“Flash Fire”

TJ Klune

I mentioned in my review of the first book that opening with a salvo of self-insert fanfic is a powerful way to begin a book, and apparently the author agreed, because this one opens with a full-on broadside. And out of that cringe frying pan, and into the awkward fire of a teenager being caught, mid-makeout-session, by his dad. Oof.

Nick, the protagonist, remains categorically the best take on a teenager I’ve ever read. No other superhero media captures quite the degree of astonishingly bad decision-making provided by the average 16-year-old boy. Peter Parker has his one dramatic character moment early in every reboot, and then after that he’s a mature adult? I’m gonna need a story arc explaining that along with the walking on the ceiling, the spider bite also magically fixed the mess of hormones that is Being A Teen, because I refuse to believe how stupid he isn’t most of the time. Nick, though? Nick is an ongoing disaster, and it’s hilarious. I had to put the book down just to laugh, multiple times.

It helps that he’s got a good support network, because just about every character that’s there is wonderful. His friends are just as hilarious, the parents—and, good lord, I’m suddenly feeling my age as I write this—are very relatable as they roast their kids for the aforementioned very bad decision-making skills, and there’s a few new characters that show up partway through that make it just that much more fun.

I picked this up within a week of finishing the last one, which I highly recommended, and I’m gonna highly recommend this one too. My biggest complaint is that it’s the second of three books, and the story arc has a distinctive Empire Strikes Back feel of “oh, this isn’t getting wrapped up well by the end of the book, is it” throughout. But then, I picked up the third book at the same time I was grabbing the second, so it turns out I’m pretty well-prepared for that.1

I loved this book as much as I did the first one. Obviously, start with the first book, but, y’know, go ahead and grab the second too.2

  1. That isn’t the only parallel to cinema that’s present in the meta-level; the book also has a post-credits sting that hit me like a truck, in the same way that some of the Marvel end-credits scenes just locked me in for watching the next one in the franchise.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Crimson Son”

Russ Linton

This was an interesting midpoint between “superhero novel about the superhero” and “superhero novel about someone completely unrelated to the superheroes.” (The latter is, honestly, pretty rare, and I think there’s more room for it to be explored as a concept. Agents of SHIELD is also somewhat on this line.) Spencer, the protagonist, certainly isn’t a superhero, being entirely powerless, but he’s also not not involved. His dad is the Superman archetype, and Spencer, being the obvious weak point, is… trapped in a secret bunker somewhere in the Arctic Circle.

The backstory of that bunker made me very happy, though—it’s not just “random bunker because Cold War,” it’s specifically explained later in the book that it was part of a network of those bunkers built by the Soviet Union… because in this world, as best as I can tell, the entire realm of “nuclear” just never happened. World War II ended with a strike team of superhumans; Chernobyl was a superhuman run amuck; the Cold War weapons race was both sides developing more and more superhumans.

Which is just a delightful twist. “They invented superheroes during World War II, but nothing else changed”? Tired. “They invented superheroes during World War II, and now all sorts of major historical events went differently because The Ultimate Weapon is now a superhero instead of a nuke”? Wired.1

And, really, the book just builds on that. The title works really well—the whole book, really, is about the legacy of that Cold War weapons development. Not just that there’s other supers out there, but that the governments had some programs officially trying to wind down the whole arms race… and that they weren’t entirely honest about how it all went.

It’s a really interesting take on the genre that I’ve read a whole lot of, and I quite enjoyed it. Definitely worth a read.2

  1. I think my favorite one of these was that, in this universe, there were no planes on 9/11; instead, there was a superhuman fielded by a terrorist organization, created using leaked Cold War superhuman tech.
  2. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.


TJ Klune

Starting with an excerpt from the egregious self-insert fanfic that your protagonist is writing sure is a powerful opening. Imagine getting hit by a fully-loaded semi truck, carrying exclusively cringe. A bold statement, which nearly got me to put the book back down again; my high school experience was bad enough on its own, and I’ve never felt the need to relive it while adding extra awkwardness.

That said, I managed to convince myself to power through, and I’m glad I did. I have to give bonus points to whoever picked the tagline on the cover—“Some people are extraordinary. Some are just extra.”—because it really explains what the protagonist is like. He’s extra. He’s also the most authentically high school character I’ve read in a while, because oh my god is he an idiot. Most of the plot of the book is “him failing to notice very obvious things, and coming up with incredibly stupid plans.”

What makes the book is his friends. Gibby is positively delightful—she spends most of the book, fully in the know on everyone’s secrets, and mostly using that to laugh at everyone instead of actually helping. A quote:

“Yes,” Gibby breathed. “Yes to this. Yes to all of it. Oh my god, yes. This is so stupid. I can’t wait. White people are freaky.

She’s living her best life.

The other thing that kept me interested in the book was that I couldn’t quite figure out all the secret identities. There’s just enough twisting to keep you wondering up until the book decides it’s time for you to know, and while it was fun to sit there in the knowledge of how well I’d narrowed down the pool of options while Nick—the protagonist—hadn’t actually figured out there was a pool of options, it was also fun to be unsure.

I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It took me a bit to get into it, because wow is the poorly-written fanfic at the start a tough sell, but once it got its hooks in I couldn’t put it down. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Work for a Supervillain”

Richard Roberts

I consistently forget how much I like Richard Roberts’ books. They’re a really excellent take on the superhero genre, embracing the ridiculousness of the whole thing while at the same time doing an excellent job of exploring some of the implications of living in a world that regularly has said ridiculous things happening. And, even better, doing things that would only work in the written form—there’s a truly delightful bit with a character named Retcon that I can’t imagine working in any format except first-person-written. A bit of their introduction, roughly paraphrased:

“You’re wasting your time, Retcon never comes to Chinatown.”

“Normally I don’t, but once I’d read that letter, I’d been here all day.”

And, beyond that little bit of messing with tenses to establish their power, you get the only-in-writing aspect: every time they speak, we get the “this is the first time I’ve seen this person, let me describe” them happening over again, and they’re described completely differently each time. (You may not the ‘they/them’ pronouns—the book doesn’t use those, but does switch between ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’ a couple times.)

And that? That’s delightful. A character whose power is that they’re constantly being retconned? Just, chef’s kiss, beautiful, I love it.

As I said, I really like Roberts’ writing. It’s fun, and light, without being vapid. This book is nominally eighth in the series, but it’s eighth in the same way that, say, a new Marvel movie is the hundredth Marvel movie: sure, if you’ve seen the others, you get a bit more background on people, but it’s not required to understand what’s going on. So, if you haven’t read any of the others, this is a pretty solid jumping-in point. Give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents You Believe Her,” or, “a much better end than I was expecting”

Richard Roberts
This is another book that I put off reading for a while. I knew going in that it was the last in the series — Roberts’ blog made that pretty clear — and then, shortly after I bought it, his publisher went under (or something? I’m unclear) and seemed to pretty effectively tank any hope for future works in the amazing world he’s built here.1
And that’s what always shines to me about his books: the world-building. Roberts has a gift for showing without telling, and manages to perfect balance explaining a little bit and leaving a bit to the imagination. One of my favorite scenes in “… You Believe Her” was Penny, sitting on a train, watching a couple boys study. It’s just that one of them was using his telekinesis to levitate the book instead of holding it with his hands. And she goes off on a little tangent, thinking about the statistics of superpowers, and we find out that the superheroes and supervillains are the statistical outliers, while there are also sorts of normal people who use their powers to… not wear spandex and beat each other up. To study. To do their jobs. To make music, or build cool computers.
That’s what I love about the series. It’s a great big world, and Roberts wants to follow the same “but what about-“ trail of implications that I always do.
It’s also hilarious, if my gushing over the world building hasn’t sold you. This book introduces Gerty the Animatronic Goat, who I described to my friend as “the single best comic-relief character I’ve ever read.” It’s silly, and wholesome, and my jaw is a little sore from how much I smiled while I was reading the book.
And the thing is, Gerty is present throughout the book, and it’s necessary. She’s comic relief, because what’s actually happening in the plot is heavy. It’s probably a requirement to read the previous book first, to be able to follow what’s going on, as it starts off pretty in the middle of things.
It’s dark and sad, and happy and silly. It’s an excellent read. Check it out.2

  1. Happy follow-up, though: I believe he’s since got the rights sorted out enough that he can resume his plans to write more in this world. 
  2. And join me in reading Roberts’ new book, in a totally different setting. I had the chance to read an early-release version of the first couple chapters a while back, and I’ve been looking forward to the full novel ever since. Hopefully I don’t take quite as long to get around to reading it as I did this one. 

The Ables

It’s a running joke, at this point, that I’m a sucker for anything with superheroes in it. It’s, like, my schtick or something.
This was an interesting one. The Ables is set in a world where superhumans exist, people with a variety of superpowers. The main character is telekinetic, a skill he inherited from his father.1 Unlike most of what I read, though, in this one the superhumans keep themselves out of the public eye. Here, they have the advantage of someone named Weatherby, a massively powerful superhuman whose ability is making people forget. All around the world, the actions of the superheroes are forgotten by the normal folk almost instantly. Which is… a really scary amount of power for any one person to have, to be honest.
Fortunately, that’s not going to be a problem for a whole lot longer – Weatherby is apparently the last in a long line of Weatherbys, all of whom have had the same power and have used it towards the same end. It’s implied that he’s rather old and has no plans to have children, so the governing body of this secretive superhero society2 are, it’s mentioned a few times, in negotiations with the governments of the world to help prepare people for the revelation that, surprise, superheroes are real.
Where it gets more off-norm for my reading is in who the main characters are. First off, they’re middle schoolers. Which… is the main reason that I almost did finish this book. The opening bits, where it’s all about being in middle school, with the tiny tweaks necessary for it to be a middle school in what is very nearly a superhero-only city? They’re a pretty good representation of what it’s like to be in middle school. Which is to say… cringe-inducing in every way. It does eventually get away from that, which is, I think, the first time I’ve been happy that a superhero book has gone away from showing how superheroes can be integrated with a modern society.3
That’s not the only bit that’s focused on in the book, though, because the other thing about the main character and his friends is how they all met: in the Special Education class. Which strikes me as a bit of a misnomer in some cases – Henry, for example, doesn’t really have any special educational needs, he’s just in a wheelchair. That said, it’s a key plot point later on that this town doesn’t consider themselves ruled by US law, and so the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply. Rather infuriating, that.
All told, it’s an interesting book, once you get into it. I don’t know if I entirely like the context it’s set in, and there’s a few things that happened that made me really mad, but I deeply enjoyed the way the plot actually went. Sure, some of the stuff that was supposed to be a big twist was astonishingly predictable, but I’m a bit more lenient about that sort of thing than I used to be.4
So, I think I’ll give this one a thumbs up. Not my favorite ‘superheroes in middle school’ novel, but then, the first place for that one is a well-developed series that’s rather hard to beat.5 Without further ado, the link.

  1. His mother is a teleporter, and his little brother is apparently going to wind up as a speedster when his powers kick in. 
  2. Points for alliteration 
  3. The “Please Don’t Tell My Parents” which I’ve reviewed… less of than I thought, actually, is a counterpoint to this. The protagonist there is also in middle school, but manages to dodge most of the cringe worthiness of middle school as a whole. As I’ve said before and will most likely be saying again, that series is a delight to read. 
  4. My stance on the matter is roughly “I’ve spent enough time reading that I’ve probably hit that ’10,000 hours to be an expert’ line, so a lot of stuff seems predictable to me.” 
  5. The fact that I can narrow my categories down this much and still have multiple contenders for first place is one of the reasons I’m comfortable assuming I’ve spent 10,000 hours reading by now. 

The Indomitable Ten

Okay you all know by now that I am obsessed with superhero media. It’s, like, my Thing. So when I saw that there was an anthology of superhero1 novellas out? I jumped right on that.
So, as I usually do for anthologies and other collections, I’m going to break it up into a series of short reviews.

My Big, Fat, Accidental Superheroine Wedding

Autocorrect doesn’t approve of ‘superheroine’ but it does approve of ‘superhero.’ Sexist.
Anyhow, this one was a little weird – it was very much focused on a specific subculture, one that I know next to nothing about. In that, it was a bit hard to relate to, but I think that’s okay- like, oh no, however shall I deal with media that doesn’t revolve around me, a white male? So yeah, I’m fine with that part. The actual superhero content of it was a bit odd, though- the main character is basically a deity, after she and her fiancé both wound up in an accident in the Large Hadron Collider that left them able to control their bodies at what appears to be an atomic level. And they’re on the run from the government. Which makes for an interesting story, overall, but I dunno, something about this one just didn’t click for me. Oh well, it was still interesting, and the ending scene was a really good one.

The World, My Enemy

This was a delight to read. It had hints of some of the non-Discworld Terry Pratchett stuff, in the way it looked at the world, and oh man did I love it.2 The main character is an Austrian super-genius, trying to be a super-villain, and… kinda sucking at it. He’s a very millennial type of villain – tons of support from his parents, a lot of potential, and just… not using it at all. And the other characters that make up the setting, from the Nemesis figure to whatever-the-girl-is3 to the cowardly boss- they’re all wonderful, executed delightfully well. It’s a silly little story and I absolutely love it.

Summer of Lob

This is actually the reason I bought this book- I adore Richard Roberts’ Please Don’t Tell My Parents… series of books, and I saw through his twitter that this book featured a novella set in the same universe. And it was everything I wanted – a short, sweet story, following Bull in his younger days. As a bonus, it gave the background for one of the characters I wanted to know more about, and introduced a few more who I’d also like to see more of. Basically, this alone made the book worth buying to me, and the rest was a nice bonus.

Weeper of Blood

I’m assuming this was part of a series, because there’s way too much setting for it to be a standalone short story. To the point that I’m still unclear on some of the stuff – things about the various characters were hinted at well enough that I’ve got an idea, but the world itself is a mystery – is it an alternate timeline, or set in the future, or what? It was really hard to tell, and I’d like to read more to find out.
The story itself was pretty good- a little sad, definitely, but a nice ‘redemption’ arc present as well, so I did like that. I definitely want to see more of this world, get a bit more of the background, though, because I have so many questions.

Seven Seconds

File this one under “have to read more.” Like, I actually just took a break from writing this so I could go google the author and find out if he’s written more.4
There was absolutely everything I want in a superhero story: an interesting main character, and a look at what people with superpowers do if they’re not being superheroes. Plus a superhero team that went insane and became villains, some high tech gadgetry being used, and a wonderful concept of superpowers that give the story its title. Another one in the category of “I would recommend buying this book on the merits of this story alone.”

Friend or Foe

Oh my god I am so confused. I really can’t tell from reading it if this one is part of a series or not- like, the amount of questions I was left with afterwards makes me want it to be, but it was written in such a way that it could believably be a standalone that was supposed to leave the reader with questions. If that was the goal, boy did it ever work. The whole thing basically takes place in the aftermath of a Final Showdown sort of fight, with only allusions to what actually took place there. The way it switched back and forth between two characters was pretty interesting – clearly, one of them was the villain, but not in a very strong way. It was more of a… misunderstood genius, kind of thing, though with a touch of willing sociopathy, so I dunno. It was interesting but a bit aggravating at times.

Night Stalker: A Tale from the Tome of Bill

I wish I could say I liked this one, because the story was kinda interesting, but I didn’t. It felt like it was written by the kind of person who tries to defend the whole “Spider-Woman butt in the air” pose: that’s to say, delighting in that gamer-nerd stereotype, “I live in my parents basement playing WoW all day” sort of humor. The main character spends a while complaining about being “friendzoned.” Blah.

Goon #3

This made me think of Code 8, a cool little short film. They’re the same sort of setting, to the degree that I could pretty reasonably believe one inspired the other. Basically, a world where something like the Superhuman Registration Act of Marvel’s Civil War5 passed, and now the superhuman folks are living with the aftermath. Yeah, there’s some superheroes, and they’re distinctly following a legal process created around that idea: but there’s also regular people who got ground under the wheels of bureaucracy. The main character spent a couple years in prison after “robbery with a deadly weapon.” Which, yeah, a reasonably jail sentence- except for the fact that the robbery was him holding his hand in his pocket so it looked like he was holding a gun. The ‘deadly weapon’ was the fact that he’s got super-strength. The fact that he never mentioned that to the person he was robbing apparently never came up in the trial, or didn’t bother the people sentencing him at all.
Which is a wonderful touch, because there’s people like that in the real world, people who get ground down by the way the system works. And I love that sort of sad realism in superhero content.6

The Incident on Orion

This one was somewhat reminiscent of Invincible, a fun little comic that I read a while back. Basically, it’s the ‘superman’ type hero, except Krypton hasn’t exploded. Instead, Krypton has, as was bound to happen with a society of supermen, become the seat of a sprawling galactic empire.
In this one, as with Invincible, it’s a bit of a vicious one – survival of the fittest was heartily adopted by that empire, and you wind up with people fighting for their right to live in the empire. And once they’ve earned that, they set out to annihilate everyone that stands in the way of that empire, even if ‘standing in the way’ is defined as ‘within 10 light years of somewhere we might want to be one day.’ Basically, gleeful genocide.
There’s a lot of Roman Empire present in this, both in naming and in the way the mythology interacts with the characters. It was really interesting to read, a sort of sad and hopeful tale. I think I’d like to read more.

Sinergy: Immortal Sin

Strange and interesting. The superpowers are a lot lighter a touch here, they still distinctly present. What was more interesting was the backdrop: there’s an Order, it’s apparently been around for a couple thousand years, and it’s somehow affiliated with the catholic church, or christianity as a whole? I’m still a bit unclear. But it was a cool mythology, definitely, and I want to see more of it, because I do love that ‘ancient order’ kind of stuff.
The story itself was… really sad, actually. I think a single character had a ‘happy’ ending, and that was “woke up with no memory of any of this happening, twenty minutes outside of Prague, with nothing but their passport and a plane ticket,” so… not a super happy ending, at that. Still, interesting.

And there we go, that’s the book reviewed. I quite liked it, and would absolutely recommend it. Go read it.

  1. Well, superhero and supervillain. Super-being? 
  2. If you ever see “Lost Terry Pratchett novel found; it’s about superheroes” in the news, find a way to tell me gently because I might have an aneurism from how excited I’d be about that. 
  3. Certainly not a love interest- somewhere between ‘best friend’ and ‘motivational speaker,’ I suppose? 
  4. He has, and I’m going to read it sometime soon, I hope. 
  5. The comic book version, not the movie version, which I still haven’t seen, so if you try to tell me spoilers I will have you executed
  6. It’s so much better than the ‘realism’ of movies these days, where they think that making everything dark and gritty makes it more ‘realistic’ somehow. Y’all have entirely missed the point, Hollywood.