I've had this book on my to-read pile for years. It's a pretty big pile.
Anyway, it gets 3 stars because I neither loved it nor hated it. The character...moreI've had this book on my to-read pile for years. It's a pretty big pile.
Anyway, it gets 3 stars because I neither loved it nor hated it. The characters, plot and situations are all fairly generic, reflected by its generic title, but on the positive side the world-building is quite interesting and the writing is very good.
Some of the twists are tremendously obvious, but I liked how they treated the world as a given, without over-explaining the basics. The structure feels like a medieval Fantasy novel, where you're just thrown into it and expected to piece things together rather than have everything explained to you via infodump.
Overall, a solid entry in the superhero fiction genre. There is a sequel, which hopefully avoids the generic pitfalls of this one, but I suspect there will be more on the whole "good v. evil = black v. white" thing going on, since it's entitled Shades of Gray. (Seriously ladies, try to come up with original titles. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a specific book with these titles? Maddening!)(less)
I read the free edition available online at Project Gutenberg. I chose this edition because it's the original hardcover -- and has the coolest cover a...moreI read the free edition available online at Project Gutenberg. I chose this edition because it's the original hardcover -- and has the coolest cover art.
Even allowing for the fact this book is 85 years old, it's not especially well-written. That said, the ideas it contains are fairly electric, and one can see how it inspired teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to create Superman. Mostly because they lifted parts of it wholesale for their creation. I don't blame though, since as teenagers we mostly just regurgitate what we've seen before. It's not their fault Superman became an instant hit.
Of particular interest to me beyond the book's pulp nature is the look at everyday life back then. The slang is sometimes as impenetrable as protagonist Hugo Danner's bullet-proof skin, but I do find it fascinating to see how language has changed. In my own lifetime I've seen slang come and go ("That's really gear!" and "That's totally nails!" and "Word to your mother!"), so it's equally quaint and interesting to read how folks in the 1920s spoke. ("I'll have a poke at you, bo.")
Attitudes have also changed. There is a casual sexism towards women that really stands out nearly a century later, but it's not intentionally cruel. Wylie also shows that the lower caste is casually racist as they use phrases like, "That's sure white of you." (The first time I heard a similar phrase, "That's mighty white of you," was from Burgess Meredith in some old movie and I did a double-take.)
For all that, the book is actually quite progressive. Hugo Danner's father is a meek but brilliant biologist who is brow-beaten by his wife. Nonetheless they manage to enjoy an evening of procreation, and he can't resist the temptation to see if his experiments to vastly improve a creature's cells will work on his unborn child. He fears that he will have a daughter as petty as his wife and is relieved when he has a son. Once his son demonstrates his remarkable strength as a toddler, Danner researches his wife's ancestors to ensure she wasn't tainted with Indian blood. Hugo himself later states that he's "Scotch Presbyterian for 20 generations."
After that, though, the pettiness of racism and sexism seems to fall away as Hugo matures and sees the world. He goes to college, he gets a summer job as a circus strongman, he becomes a merchant marine, he joins the French Foreign Legion and fights in the Great War, he works as a farmhand, always careful to hide the true extant of his abilities unless there's no other choice... in fact, a lot of it feels much like the plot of the recent Superman movie, Man of Steel.
Hugo's various adventures lead him to the conclusion that most people are pathetic, no matter their origin or station in life. He investigates various belief systems in turn, capitalism, communism, libertarianism, even eugenics, and rejects them all. He struggles with his innate anger at injustice and tries to master his feeling of disdain for weaker mortals. He attempts to atone for his failings, including accidental homicide, but finds it impossible to measure up to the standards he slowly formulates over the course of the novel.
In the hands of a better writer, this would be genuinely powerful stuff, but even here you can feel the electricity of these ideas.
The ending is a trope we've seen a thousand times since, but this is the earliest I've encountered it in so stark a form. It has an archetypal, iconic image to it that every superhero comic book has emulated in one form or another ever since, whether those writers have read this book or not.
This is one of those source novels that I recommend people read, just to see the wellspring for so much of our current fiction. The ideas are better than the writing, but it is interesting nonetheless.(less)
If I were 12, I would have really liked Steelheart. But I'm not, so I didn't. This is the second novel I've read by Brandon Sanderson, as well as a fe...moreIf I were 12, I would have really liked Steelheart. But I'm not, so I didn't. This is the second novel I've read by Brandon Sanderson, as well as a few short stories, and I've already begun to see patterns. The biggest one is this: All of Brandon Sanderson's books are YA.
They might not say so on the cover, but that's what they are.
The plot of Steeheart is pretty basic. It's a minor variation of The Princess Bride, with the main character of David standing in for Inigo Montoya: "You killed my father, prepare to die." I don't take points away for plot, because there are only a few plots to draw from. The Revenge For My Father thing is extremely common. Here's the TV Tropes link on the subject. (I am not to be held accountable if you start following links on that site and suddenly realize it's four hours later.)
No, it's not the plot that is the issue, it's how the plot is used. In this case, it's completely straightforward: David's dad is killed by Steelheart when David is 8, and he spends the next 10 years plotting revenge.
The whole backstory is this: one day this thing appears in the sky that people call "Calamity." It gives some people super powers. These people are called Epics. In this world, however, there aren't any superheroes, only supervillains, because absolute power corrupts absolutely. Everyone who gets an Epic power becomes twisted and evil if they use said power. Except for one guy named Conflux, but he's important only as a plot device and Sanderson forgets about him after his plot point is delivered.
Steelheart is the strongest of them all, completely invulnerable with the ability to shoot energy beams from his hands and turn non-living things into steel. He takes over Chicago after turning most of the city into steel during "the Great Transfersion" (seriously) and renaming it "Newcago." (I know, right?)
If you read comic books, this might sound awfully familiar to you. That's because this is the dumbed-down YA version of J. Michael Straczynski's superb Rising Stars and Straczynski's equally excellent reboot of the Squadron Supreme for Marvel, called Supreme Power, Volume 1: Contact. In each of these books, there is an inciting incident that grants superpowers to certain individuals, and then the world has to deal with that. Eventually some (or most) of them go bad and things turn ugly. Chicago, transference of abilities, human resistance, the world broken... all the elements are there. But Straczynski does it better with fewer words.
One of the reasons why Sanderson's books are YA is because he self-censors to a ridiculous degree when it comes to language. In Warbreaker he creates a world where color gives you power, so the curse word there is "Colors!" Okay, fine, it's a different world. Here, though, Steelheart takes place in our world just a decade after these supervillains appear and the go-to curse words are "Sparks!" (never explained) and the lesser-used "Calamity!" Now, I can see wanting to avoid dropping the F-bomb all the time, but people would still use the same curse words we use in real life. There's nary an "oh shit!" or "damnit!" or "screw it!" to be had in the entire novel. There are a couple uses of "damn" and a few instances of "hell", but they're mostly used as part of phrases ("hotter than hell" "hell if I know") and only by a couple characters.
This is what passes for "salty language" in a Sanderson novel, indicating people on the edges of polite society or someone losing control of themselves.
The problem being that all those dozens and dozens of uses of "sparks!" and "Calamity!" really stand out as Archie Comics-level of silliness. I realize Sanderson is a Mormon, but come on. It's not like he doesn't know these words. And it's not like the people reading this book don't know them, either. It just comes across as unrealistic.
One of the all-time great episodes of the sitcom Frasier is "The Zoo Story", which revolves around Frasier deciding to leave his cut-throat agent Bebe (another one of the most brilliantly hilarious characters ever created) for someone who is both a good agent *and* a good man. Naturally he chooses a Mormon, who is so goody-goody that he gets eaten alive by the radio station's representative. At one point Frasier says to Ben, "I know you'll give him hell!" and Ben responds quizzically, "Boy, I love show folk, but I can never get used to the cursing."
If you're going to curse, do it. Don't make up lame alternatives that sound ridiculous.
That rant aside, it is kind of a minor annoyance, all things considered. The main issue I have with the book is that it's entirely too predictable. That's the reason this only gets two stars from me. No spoilers, but I had figured out the secrets behind the Prof's mysterious past and Megan's issues pretty early on. The chief reason being Sanderson kept ineptly doing things like have a character say, "I'll tell you about it later," right in the middle of a conversation. That's bad enough, but he kept drawing attention to it by having David notice it. You can't try to use misdirection by pointing out your use of misdirection. That's clumsy, not clever.
The other big detriment for me is that this reads like a first draft. I have no idea how much rewriting and polishing went into it, but from various interviews he's given I get the idea that once Sanderson thinks something is good enough, he moves on. But then he leaves really terrible sentences behind that act like grammatical roadblocks for anyone paying he slightest bit of attention. At one point David thinks this of a gun dealer, "He had a smile like a parrot fish, which I've always assumed looked like parrots, though I've never actually seen either." What the hell, dude? Another example: "directing the blast the direction we wanted it to go." The book is riddled with these juvenile sentences. If it had a copy editor, he's bad at his job. (Early on he mentions "Ditko Street", which is the only comic book reference given and it stands out like waving a flag. If you don't know who Steve Ditko is -- he co-created Spider-man -- you won't notice. But he makes no mention of other classic comic book creators, so it feels like an idea he started with and then either failed to continue or he took all the other references out while missing this one.)
Another clue that this world isn't fully realized comes from the fact that Sanderson calls the United States "the Fractured States" and has a couple characters remark that, for all its terribleness, Newcago (oh man does that word gets stuck in your throat like a wad of phlegm or what?) is one of the places where a semblance of order still exists. The problem is that people have ready access to cell phones and guns of all kinds. If the world is WORSE off than Newcago (herk, ptooie), then no one is still making iPhones. And if they are, there's no real global distribution network. This is a post-apocalyptic world, but it kind of feels like the USSR. It's just weird and, again, clumsy. First draft-like.
I kind of suspect that Sanderson has never met a poor person in his life. Maybe he had to give up a few things as a college student, but both this and Warbreaker make it seem like the closest he's ever gotten to genuinely poor people is the lower-middle class family in his grade school whose kids had to wear last year's sneakers. Poor people living in an oppressive society ruled with fear and under the cloak of perpetual night don't have the wherewithal to buy cell phones!
The problems I had with Steelheart are the same ones I had with Warbreaker: he has a really great prologue that is an absolute killer, followed by a typical plot we've seen dozens of times before, and he mixes in elements that are clearly just stolen from better writers. In Warbreaker, it was Moorcock. Here it's Straczynski. His characters are just there to advance the plot and he thinks in terms of series, so we never really get an answer to the over-arching mysteries of this world.
I do give Sanderson a point for the ending when David does finally confront Goliath... er, Steelheart. But a lot of the stuff building up to that moment feel forced, as if he's merely ticking off boxes on his plot outline to get to the reveal.(less)
A nice return to form and a suitable conclusion to the Ex-Heroes trilogy... or is it? Clines mentions there might be two more books in the series in t...moreA nice return to form and a suitable conclusion to the Ex-Heroes trilogy... or is it? Clines mentions there might be two more books in the series in the afterword.
New stories don't immediately come to mind for me since this wrapped everything up fairly tidily. The Big Bad is defeated and there are plenty of implications that the population of the Mount will grow and prosper. Sure, there are lots of challenges still to be faced, but there were so many revelations and mysteries solved that he'd have to come up with new characters beyond the main ones we've seen.
Although I enjoyed it, the book does have its problems. Primarily the set-up with Corpse Girl, whose memories reset whenever she falls asleep, is seemingly dropped by the end of the book. I expected it to play more into the climax, but it's forgotten. Not a big deal overall, but so much time was spent setting it up that I expected it to be more significant. I did like the ultimate explanation for Corpse Girl's condition, though.
The climactic battle -- c'mon, this is superhero fiction, you know there is one -- is quite good. Overall, I liked it.(less)
I started this yesterday afternoon and finished it today. That in itself is a recommendation.
This book isn't brilliant b...more4.5 out 5 punches to the face.
I started this yesterday afternoon and finished it today. That in itself is a recommendation.
This book isn't brilliant but it *is* really fucking good. You can think of it like a Marvel Max with the adult themes and sex talk and Rated-M-for-Mature attitude. It's definitely lewd and crude, but Tobin doesn't do it to be shocking; rather, it's just the way some of these characters behave. I do wonder if some people might see some misogyny in parts of the book, but the reality is that both genders are treated equally: good sides and bad.
The fight scenes are brutally satisfying, and there is a definite moral ambiguity to much of the interaction between heroes and villains. Especially when some of them switch sides. One of the unintended consequences with the Comics Code Authority was that heroes weren't allowed to kill, but villains often were. This raises the question of moral absolutes versus situational ethics because, in the final measure, wouldn't the world be better off if Batman just killed Joker outright? In comics which examine the complexities of the world, we've seen that when moral absolutes and situational ethics collide, the outcome isn't always predictable. When the Kingpin is killed, it creates an anarchic vacuum that was far worse than what Spider-man and Daredevil faced when foiling Kingpin's plans.
Prepare to Die examines that same gray area of superheroing. Plus dollops of regret about the choices we all make as we get older. Those choice may have been right in the moment, but from another viewpoint sometimes they aren't the best path to follow. Problem is, you don't know until afterward.
All this, plus epic battles. What's not to like?
I really enjoyed the tone of the book, I liked the pacing, I liked the inventiveness of it and, ultimately, the preoccupation with sex didn't annoy me as much as it does in other books.(less)
Although the story is slow to start, it builds nicely to a satisfying climax worthy of superhero fiction.
The main character is the only one who is rea...moreAlthough the story is slow to start, it builds nicely to a satisfying climax worthy of superhero fiction.
The main character is the only one who is really fully-developed, but that's not much of a detriment. She's the normal daughter of the premiere superheroes of the city (and the planet, apparently, although not much is said of the wider world) who has a serious black mark on her record due to some teenage rebellion. Of course, when you rebel by joining the supervillain arch-nemesis of your parents, it's kind of big deal.
Trying to distance herself from her past and her famous family, Celia goes to college and ends up becoming an accountant. Which actually plays a fairly large role in the book's primary conflict and leads to the best line in the whole piece.
Celia felt fully realized and has inner conflicts which come across as quite real. I enjoyed how the tale grew from a small inner conflict to a larger outer one. This didn't rock me back on my heels or anything, but it's a really solid story that has a fresh look at superheroes.
The only things which hold it back are the slight failings of the reveals and not pushing some of the core ideas.
Once Celia starts thinking about the essential mystery at the heart of the story, she postulates her theory -- which ends up being the correct conclusion. It's just a matter of getting the pieces in place to build her case. There's no sense of danger, even when she's doing things which are otherwise extra-legal.
I also was surprised at the love interest angle. Since she tends toward the paranoid side, her all-too-brief questioning of the love interest's ulterior motives seemed odd. Based on what she's like in other aspects of her life, ultimately accepting the relationship without some deep soul-searching felt a bit off.
All in all, though, it's a good story and I was interested all the way through.(less)
This novel was a fast read. I leapt through the pages like the titular characters leaping across roofs. I don't generally read YA novels, having left...moreThis novel was a fast read. I leapt through the pages like the titular characters leaping across roofs. I don't generally read YA novels, having left my YA years far behind, but it's one of the few ways to get some superhero fiction these days. I read the first two pages and was hooked. The writing was direct, the witty dialogue actually witty, and the action nicely delineated.
As I was reading I was struck by how much the main character, Bright Boy, is clearly an analogue of Robin, while his mentor, Phantom Justice, is Batman. Although Bright Boy is really a mash-up of Robin and Spider-man, and the story is not dissimilar from the Incredibles in some aspects... and at that point you have to realize that despite certain elements being similar to other superhero tales, this is its own beast.
There are multiple mysteries of minor and major import which get unraveled once Bright Boy discovers that his arch-nemesis, Monkeywrench, is actually one of the more popular kids at his school. (That's on the inside flap, so not a spoiler. Also, given the tenor of the book, you have to expect that to happen.) Technically Monkeywrench is the *sidekick* to Phantom Justice's archenemy Dr. Chaotic, but it works out to be the same.
Of course, at school Bright Boy -- Scott -- gets bullied and despite being a "plus/plus" (increased strength, added speed) he can't respond in kind. Also, he's actually a good guy who takes this hero thing seriously. Problem is, he can't get close to anyone for fear of compromising his secret identity and exposing his classmates to danger.
Aside from constant harassment at school, Bright Boy gets humiliated in a number of ways, because going through puberty as a very public superhero in a skin-tight outfit isn't easy. This ultimately leads to a confrontation with Phantom Justice which creates even more tension in Scott's life.
Once all the game pieces fall into place, the story kicks into high gear and Bright Boy is backed into a corner in all parts of his life. There are twists and turns aplenty, but the overall impression from the book is one of fun.
My only minor nitpick is the ending. it feels a bit muddied to me, without the clarity of the rest of the book. It almost feels like it could use a second round of polish. But this is a slight thing to complain about.(less)
3.5 stars. Ex-Patriots is the sequel to Ex-Heroes. It's not quite as engaging as the first book was, half because it's not as revelatory and half beca...more3.5 stars. Ex-Patriots is the sequel to Ex-Heroes. It's not quite as engaging as the first book was, half because it's not as revelatory and half because the story itself isn't as awesome. If Ex-Heroes is the "KAPOW!" then Ex-Patriots is the "Biff!"
A direct analogy: Iron Man was an awesome movie, revelatory for making the character compelling and altogether amazing, while Iron Man 2 was competently made. That's how these books compare. As with Iron Man 2, I recommend Ex-Patriots to anyone who is a fan of the first one. It's nice to get back into that world and see those people again.
I'm not going to lie, though... I really hope the third installment, Ex-Communication, blows my hair back the way Ex-Heroes did.(less)
I'm giving this one 2 stars only because I can't do 1.5 stars. This is a book where the idea is better than the execution. The exchanges between the t...moreI'm giving this one 2 stars only because I can't do 1.5 stars. This is a book where the idea is better than the execution. The exchanges between the teenagers don't feel natural at all, which really makes the forward momentum clunky. Some people may say that's a silly thing to get hung up on, considering this is a story about kids with superpowers, but it's important to get smaller things right in order for the reader to buy in the big stuff.
That said, the idea of kids discovering they have superpowers has been done quite often, but Cross does give it a slight wrinkle. Unfortunately, she doesn't explore it fully enough so it feels undeveloped. It seems to me the motivation of the major antagonist is a rich vein to mine, but she seemed to shy away from it. Perhaps she's saving it up for the sequel.
The book is better for younger kids, probably 12-13 or so, but there are a few moments where characters say things like "WTF," which is probably not something most parents want their kids knowing.(less)
Weak ending to the trilogy with an open ending clearly designed with a sequel in mind. The first book was definitely the best of these three but I did...moreWeak ending to the trilogy with an open ending clearly designed with a sequel in mind. The first book was definitely the best of these three but I didn't hate it.(less)
Easily one of the best superhero novels I've read, and a cracking good tale with well-drawn characters, excellent action scenes and nifty twists along...moreEasily one of the best superhero novels I've read, and a cracking good tale with well-drawn characters, excellent action scenes and nifty twists along the way.(less)