Three-Chapter Reviews #1 (Superhero Prose)

Welcome to my first THREE-CHAPTER REVIEW, where I hope to answer that eternal question: “Should I keep reading this or not?” For an explanation of why I’m doing reviews of only three-chapters, refer to my previous post here.

This maiden voyage will have me comparing the first three chapters of the novel Soon, I Will Be Invincible to the first three chapters of the short-story Keely: A Steampunk Story (KaS). Both of these are in the SF/F: Superhero subgenre of prose fiction. And both had a lot to recommend them. It’s important to remember that, as prose stories based on the comic book medium, they are, by definition, pastiches. So while it is important to judge these on their own merits as prose works, I am also looking at whether or not they have anything new to say about the underlying comic tropes.

1A.

Soon, I Will Be Invincible (SIWBI).
Goodreads: 3.7, Kindle 4.2

The first three chapters in SIWBI set up two main characters, the more prominent of which is the antagonist. It’s worth noting: the characters are completely stolen from mainstream comics lore. For a hot minute, the thievery is so over-the-top that one begins to wonder if it is meant less as homage than as parody. But, no, it does settle into a story that hints at many deeper issues from the past that need to be resolved—for hero and villain alike.

As I said, one of the main characters (MCs) is the villain of the piece. I do like that. While it certainly isn’t new to feature anti-heroes or outright villains as main characters (MCs) in comics, it starts things off in a promising direction.

The problem is in the execution. For example, “Doctor Impossible” is clearly Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom. He introduces himself as, give or take, the smartest person on the planet. The author uses first person point of view (POV) to humanize his villain. And, by the end of chapter three, you begin to think it could work. But, to me, the character’s voice could have been more believably done.

For example, when I read the verbiage of Leto in God Emperor of Dune, I believe that being is thousands of years old and carries the wisdom of the ages. Or Doctor Doom in the comics almost always comes off as powerfully erudite. So, when I read this Doctor’s monologues, does he come across as the smartest person on the planet? Not really.

Part of the problem, of course is the Sherlock issue. Unless you treat a super-intellect as a black box and only have other POV characters comment on them, you always risk undermining their status as super-smart. In other words, don’t write what you don’t know.

The other MC/POV character is “Fatale”. Yes, she is female. And she tends to be more relatable (she is the clear audience proxy); although, her first interactions with The Champions (The Justice League-like teammates she is joining) don’t do as much to flesh out her personality as I would’ve hoped. But the author is busy ‘introducing’ his other various Wonder Woman/Batman substitutes.

Before having read the ending, it seems likely that her mysterious past is probably a Doctor Invincible machination. Hopefully it will cycle back to her actual backstory (since she cannot remember her own origin…which sort of undermines the idea of an origin story). At this stage, she spends most of her chapter naval gazing, trying to get her bearings, while answering the question: “Do Cyborgs Dream of Electric Strip Malls?”

Overall the prose is pretty pedestrian. For all his lineage/pedigree, this was Austin Grossman’s first novel and, in spots, it does read like one. There are many fits and stops and starts in just the first chapter. It’s as if you can see where he started to pursue a fun line of creative inquiry, and then aborted it for another, and then another. And, finally, not being able to choose, just leaving them all in.

That being said, he does seem to be setting the stage from some character depth later on. So, I would recommend seeing it through, as a fun experiment…like the secret government agencies that create these heroes, behind the scenes: You never know what pieces of the experience finishing this book might trigger your own superpowers.

~~~~> My 3Ch Review:
The first three chapters: 6.5/10
Keep reading: yea or nay? Yes, if it’s your sub-genre. If not, subtract a point-and-a-half, and take a pass.

1B.

Keely: A Steampunk Story (KaS)

It was very good for me to read these two back-to-back.

This short story is set in a steampunk future-past where England is the sole country left to resist invading aliens. The Protagonist and POV character is a Mr. Thomas Laybourne, a scientist/weapons designer hoping to turn the tide. The story begins when a Supergirl (same powers) falls from the sky. He takes her in and slowly teaches her to try and fit in and not do embarrassing things like running around nude or saving too many people out in the open.

Still, there is that tide to be turned…

There is an obvious romantic angle that the story seems to be building up to, which (just as with the current CW show, “Superman and Lois”) brings to mind the classic essay from Larry Niven.

At the end of the day, this plot setup is actually thinner than even most comic books. The story leans into the steampunk-i-ness of it all…but that sort of undermines the alien invasion. And I do mean undermine, not subvert. I was never quite sure of the science behind why zeppelins were the key to stopping the aliens. But I wasn’t buying it.

Nor is it saved by the characterization: Neither the Supergirl (who gets the name Keely), nor the MC has yet been presented as more than two-dimensional. So, that is a problem.

However, the prose itself is very, very good. That is what saves it.

This short story was presented as part of the attendees materials for the recent World Fantasy Convention 2020. Thus selected, it is apparently an exemplar.

I am not going to go that far. What I consider the gold standard in this sub-genre (Superhero SF/F prose) is Superman: Last Son of Krypton by Elliiot S! Maggin (1978) occupies a place of honor in my personal library. Five Stars Or, if you’re looking for a more recent example, Doctor Strange: The Fate of Dreams (2019) is quite good, too. Four Stars.

~~~~> My 3Ch Review:
The first three chapters: 5.5/10
Keep reading, yea or nay? The quality of writing and the budding romance is good enough to finish…for a short-story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *