Monday, February 28, 2011
A (Non-Comic) Book You Should Be Reading
Hey, look, I finally got around to a book review!
I usually read about four books at a time. Partly it’s because I tend to lose track of them for an hour or so, leave them in the wrong bag, etc., and I can’t stand to be without reading material. Partly it’s because I always have a thing or two I’m trying to read for work and a thing or two I’m reading because I’m me. But mostly it’s because I can rarely settle down enough to read only one book on any given day.
For the last month, Michael A. Stackpole’s In Hero Years … I’m Dead has been in my Now-Reading stack. Repeatedly. As in I finished reading it and then I went back to the beginning and started reading it again. For about a week in there, it occupied my attention almost exclusively. It’s just that much fun, and nothing else in the stack could compete with it. It’s the superhero novel I’ve been awaiting for 15 years. And it’s pretty much worth the wait.
In Hero Years … I’m Dead is, as far as I can tell, only Stackpole’s second published foray into the world of superhero fiction, and his first serious whack at the genre in a decade and a half. (Full disclosure: his 1995 superhero short story “Peer Review,” which you can buy here, got me into writing my own superhero stories, which eventually became Masks, so I’m hardly impartial.) But it’s worth the delay. Unlike the hipster superheroes who surface periodically and skewer the genre before melting back into the cooler-than-thou mainstream (I’m talking to you, Soon I Will Be Invincible!), In Hero Years takes superheroes at their word. Guys in capes exist; some of them are trying to help and some of them are not; but people are people whether or not they’re wearing spandex. The result is something Stackpole calls “superhero noir,” and it mostly works.
The narrator of In Hero Years is a former superhero, a “Felix” (read: mere-mortal costumed hero with a bag of tricks instead of superpowers) who went by the name Coyote in his spandex days, though his real name is never revealed. After being held prisoner for twenty years by mysterious enemies, the narrator returns to his home in Capital City to find it dramatically changed. Where once heroes battled villains in the name of good, they now fight it out in a manner reminiscent of fantasy football or tabletop gaming. Villains leak their plans online and heroes bid for the chance to defeat them. More successful heroes and more colorful villains rise in the rankings and see more income from the sales of their memorabilia; television viewers at home get the ultimate in reality TV; and damage to the surrounding landscape and people is minimized. Best of all, citizens participate through fantasy “superfriends” leagues, winning small sums as their favorite heroes succeed. It’s an alien world to the narrator, not least because the media-centric nature of the rankings ensure that those great heroes of the past who didn’t get on TV much—including his aged mentor, Puma, now stricken with Alzheimer’s—are nearly penniless and all but forgotten. Puma’s poignant appearances in the story serve to underscore that something is rotten in Capital City.
But the protagonist of In Hero Years may be too far out of the game to do much about it. Twenty years past his prime, trying to reconnect with his lost love and get to know the daughter he didn’t realize he had, he discovers how fragile his tenuous existence can be. In his hero days, he lived under a series of assumed names, keeping his real identity secret even from the reader for reasons that I won’t spoil here. Now that he has to build a solid life for himself, he discovers the ground beneath his feet is quicksand—and he’s sinking fast, as someone on the villainous side seems to still be out to get him. He has three goals, then—catch the bad guy, fix his life, and somehow set the world to rights again. The result is a winning combination of superheroic action, noirish mystery, and moving character-based drama.
In Hero Years is not quite perfect, at least by my private standards for the genre. Stackpole is just a bit too fond of indulging in psychoanalysis of his characters, and the intriguing creation of “p-crud”, or post-costume rage disorder (a psychological syndrome common to former costumed heroes), doesn’t completely make up for the narrator occasionally sounding like he’s working through a twelve-step program instead of solving a mystery or rediscovering his family or returning justice to the world. Some of the social commentary may or may not age well, either, like the evil mastermind Dr. Sinisterion writing an O.J.-like hypothetical confession called If I Were A Supervillain, though it’s all fun for now. But even Stackpole’s wobbles have a history of surviving nicely (his Star Wars novel I, Jedi is still considered among the best of the series over a decade after its publication, despite a few dated references and a similar psychoanalytic indulgence), so it’s probably best to let him run and see where these characters take him. Besides, it’s far and away the closest I’ve seen to a truly brilliant original superhero novel. At its worst, it’s still great.
Mostly, In Hero Years delivers the goods, and any stumbles are minor ones. The hero is a charming rogue, surrounded by colorful and engaging friends, lovers, allies, and enemies; the world is well-drawn and believable; the plot gamely balances superheroics, detective work, and family drama, leavened with delightful moments of humor (watch for the description of superhero poker night). Best of all, the twists of plot and character keep coming like a good roller coaster, right to the novel’s end, when the hero is revealed to be—well, I won’t spoil it. But I reread this book for a month just to see how Stackpole built up that dramatic reveal, and I dearly hope we’ll see more of his nameless hero.
Which brings me to the one big drawback to In Hero Years … I’m Dead. It’s a self-published, electronic-only novel, available for download in EPUB format here. I dropped the extra dollar for the deluxe edition, which included an afterword by Stackpole about how he came to write the book and how he developed various aspects of it, and it appears he tried for several years to get it published conventionally. Despite his status as a New York Times bestselling author, all deals fell through, and he finally decided to run the project up the online flagpole and see who saluted. Most of the wobbles in the book (including more typographic errors than I’m used to, though not enough to be really distracting) would probably be cleaned up by the attention of a professional editor, and so I join the author in hoping that a little online attention will help In Hero Years … I’m Dead finally see print in dead-tree format.
Especially because I don’t actually own an e-reader. Or a smartphone, or any other device optimized for the reading of electronic novels. I read the entire 700-page book on my laptop. I can’t say it’s my favorite way to experience books, but the free chapters Stackpole posted online were irresistible, and I’m a couple of years, a more steady job, and the conclusion of the format wars away from being able to purchase a dedicated electronic reader of my own. And so I made do with the EPUB and some e-book freeware, and it says something that this book held up so well under some fairly adverse conditions.
One note on the two versions of the book available: the deluxe edition, which includes that afterword, is worth the extra buck for aspiring writers and anyone who really loves their DVD special features. If you’re the sort who just watches the movie and leaves the bonus disc in the box, you have my permission to go for the standard version with a clear conscience. Either way, you’re getting a ripping good yarn and the author’s getting several bucks per copy of his opus, as compared to the 50 cents or so he gets every time you buy one of his conventional paperbacks from Amazon. And he’s suggested before that books that sell more e-copies through his website will spawn sequels, so this is an excellent opportunity to vote with your dollars.
I can’t wait to see what this Felix gets up to next …