“Superpowers” by David J. Schwartz (2008)

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“It all started at a party, which is damn convenient if you ask me, and if this weren’t a true story I wouldn’t expect you to believe it.”

We’ve probably all, at one time or another, wondered what superpower we’d want. Some of us want to fly, others wouldn’t mind being able to teleport, or shapeshift, be able to manipulate the weather, or be able to predict the future. I’d want all the ones around time travel and time manipulation, or else being able to jump into fiction and interact with the characters inside. Broadly speaking though, you probably won’t complain with whatever you end up with – it’ll still be cool.

Superpowers takes us back to 2001, and is the account of five students in Madison, Wisconsin who all develop superpowers unexpectedly after a night drinking home-brewed beer in a colossal thunderstorm. Mary Beth is now the strongest person on Earth; Jack is faster than a speeding bullet; Caroline can fly and spends her evenings enjoying her new power; Charlie can read everyone’s thoughts and is becoming overwhelmed; and Harriet can turn invisible. Once they start getting a handle on their new abilities, they decide to form a superhero team, dubbed by the media as the All Stars, thanks to the patterns on the chests of their Lycra uniforms.

The five struggle to keep their identities secret from the wider world, but they’re drawing attention to themselves and not always in a good way. Some of the people they’ve tried to save don’t appreciate the help, and the police, including Harriet’s own father, are on the case of the All Stars, since vigilante activity is illegal. They soon realise that they are still fragile, and even they can’t solve all the world’s problems. This will become vastly more apparent to them soon, as it’s 2001. September is coming, and with it, an event that will rearrange the world order and prove to them that being a hero isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

The situation, while fantastical, is handled in a startlingly realistic way. Naturally, the characters take a while to come round to the sudden changes, but quickly decide that they must use their powers for good. When other people begin to find out about them, no one declares that it’s impossible or rounds them up for medical tests, and it’s all taken in its stride with the more pressing issues of keeping their names and faces out of the media, and how to fight crime at keep up with their classes at the same time.

It’s also quite funny in places, but does deal well with the struggles that would occur with these powers. Charlie, for example, is overwhelmed by his ability to read everyone’s thoughts, and considers it an invasion of privacy he’s not happy to have. Jack’s super speed has meant that he’s now aging far faster than the normal human rate. And Harriet soon discovers that she can use her invisibility to spy on people and pretend to be living someone else’s life. Also, it can’t maintain the comedy for the whole thing because of what happens at the end – I won’t spell it out for you, but it’s clear if you’re reading properly. The situation is dealt with in a respectful and fascinating manner, and reminds everyone of how tragic that single event was.

Ultimately, like pretty much all superhero fiction, it’s a book about power and responsibility, but even more so I would say it’s about accepting our limitations, whether we’ve got superpowers or not. It’s important to know that none of us can single-handedly save the world or do all that needs doing, but we can help out in our own small ways.

“The Damned Busters” by Matthew Hughes (2011)

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damned“The demon’s sudden appearance, along with a puff of malodorous smoke and a short-lived burst of flame, took Chesney Arnstruther by surprise.”

Some books become immediate favourites and capture you so strongly that you breeze through them at an incredible speed. Others become weights around your ankles, tying you down and you find them impossible to complete. But the literary world, like every other, is not that black and white, because every so often you find a book like The Damned Busters that does both to you.

Our hero, Chesney Anstruther, is a mild-mannered and introverted actuary who lives for numbers and doesn’t really understand other people. One evening, he accidentally summons a demon who won’t leave until Chesney has signed a contract giving him his soul. Chesney refuses (“You expect me to go back and tell that to my supervisor?” says the demon) and soon he is being chased by other demons who try and convince him that he owes them. And then something strange happens. Humanity seems to shut down and people have lost all interest in sinning. It transpires that sinning is what makes the world go round (without greed, people don’t want to work; without gluttony, people have no need for restaurants and food, and so on) As lethargy sweeps the planet, Chesney gets a visit from the Devil himself. Hell is on strike, and Chesney is the only one who can get the demons back to work.

Chesney brokers a deal with the Devil. He won’t give up his soul, but he will get the demons back to work. With the help of his mother, an angel and an evangelical preacher, a contract is signed, but it grants Chesney the right to call on his own personal demon, Xaphan, for two hours a day, during which time Chesney becomes the Actionary, the superhero that the city needs. Now armed with new powers, a know-all demon, and a knowledge of how to fight crime thanks to years of reading comic books, Chesney is on a mission to save the city and maybe win the girl.

The book shifts direction throughout like a rickety rollercoaster, which works for some people, but unfortunately here lets Hughes down. The first eighty pages are all about Chesney dealing with the demons, Hell going on strike and the peace treaty. It is intelligent, funny and wonderfully creative. However, after that, it turns into a story of Chesney trying to become a superhero, as well as his day to day job as an actuary, working with crime statistics for his domineering boss W. T. Paxton. At this point, the whole thing begins to fall down. Unfortunately, the concept of Hell going on strike and all the demon characters who are introduced early on (including the Devil himself) are far more interesting than Chesney’s job, his attempts at hiding his secret identity and the human characters. Supporting characters are all forgettable, uninteresting and I didn’t find myself clicking with any of them, or worrying about what was going to happen to them.

Towards the end of the book, the focus shifts back to Hell and the Devil and it becomes interesting again, and to give the book credit, the final line is an absolutely stonker of a hook and regardless of whatever bad stuff I’ve said here, I’ll almost certainly be continuing with the series. Chesney is a great character, and one I feel a lot of warmth for, and I also really enjoy Xaphan the demon. There’s a great explanation for the behaviour of God, but I wish it had been expanded on further. The book is also intensely creative when it comes to swearing. Not a single expletive is used in the book, but many are implied with smart phrasing, and Chesney has his own method of swearing using nonsense words.

It feels like it’s trying to be two stories in one and, while that’s not necessarily a bad thing by any means, it just so happens that one story is infinitely more interesting than the other. The novel’s main threat (of the non-Hell variety, anyway) never feels particularly dangerous, more of a cardboard cut-out of a villain who’s there just so the Actionary can have someone to fight.

All in all, it’s a good book – clever, witty and original – but the majority just, unfortunately, does feel like a slog. The pay-off is good, but I don’t know if it’s worth all the middle chapters of flat characters and uninteresting set-ups.