“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.

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“Lagoon” by Nnedi Okorafor (2014)

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“She slices through the water, imagining herself as a deadly beam of black light.”

It’s always seemed odd to me, when I choose to not play along with the suspension of disbelief that films require of us, that whenever an alien invasion occurs on Earth, it seems to centre around New York or London, as if the aliens seem to know that those places are important somehow. When you think how big the planet is about how there are great swathes of land in, say, Siberia or Patagonia that are entirely devoid of life, it seems remarkable that aliens always somehow hit on a capital city anyway. Therefore, if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see it happen somewhere else.

What appears to be a meteorite slams into the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, and water begins to encroach the beach. Caught in the ensuing tsunami are marine biologist Adaora, famous Ghanaian rapper, Anthony, and a solider, Agu, three strangers who all possess strange and unusual abilities.  Once the water has returned them to the sand, they meet the first of the aliens, who looks human and Adaora names Ayodele. She insists that her people have not come to cause harm, but merely to cause change.

Adaora rushes Ayodele and the men back to her house where the sets about studying the extraterrestrial with her scientific equipment. It seems she’s not even made of cells and is capable of taking on whatever form she chooses, and apparently reading the thoughts of people in close proximity. When Adaora’s husband appears with the local bishop, word begins to spread about the nature of the visitor, and soon Lagos is plunged into chaos as Ayodele and her people are greeted with hostility by the general population. Our heroes set about on a mission to hunt down the missing President and bring him to meet Ayodele’s people, at which time, perhaps, a new era will dawn.

It might just be me, but I found the whole book somewhat disjointed. There are a lot of characters here and most of them get at least one chapter from their point of view. Aside from the three primary characters of Adaora, Anthony and Agu, we also have Adaora’s husband, their nanny, the nanny’s boyfriend and his friends, two witnesses of the rising tide that stole the heroes temporarily, the bishop, the President and occasionally a nearby animal, such as a bat or a spider. Among this are bits from a character that appears to be some kind of spider-god (it mentions Anansi as being a relative) which feels particularly weird given the rest of the novel seems to be science fiction.

One of the more interesting groups of characters are the Black Nexus, an LGBT group who begin to show themselves for who they really are just as the chaos really breaks into the streets of Lagos. Nigeria is not a country that deals well with homosexuality, so the inclusion of these characters is rather fascinating, but they disappear about halfway through and we never really find out what became of them.

I’m not writing the book off as bad, not at all. The prose is delicately beautiful at times, although the lapses into Pidgin English are distracting and if I had to flip to the provided glossary for every other word when they’re used then I would’ve never properly engaged with the text. You can get the gist of what’s going on, anyway. Some of the characters are too immediately accepting of the alien presence, which feels unrealistic, and the primary reason for reading this book, probably, comes down to the setting. I know very little of Nigeria, and even less of Lagos, so whatever else, it was fascinating to explore part of it and its culture.

It ends on a note that suggests a cliffhanger, but for a novel that’s very different to the one you just read. It’s one of those novels that is middle ground in the extreme for me – I enjoyed it enough, but I won’t remember anything about it in a year’s time.

“The Rook” by Daniel O’Malley (2012)

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rook“Dear You, the body you are wearing used to be mine.”

Over the years I’ve encountered so many books that I wish I’d written, but known that I’d never be able to do them as well as they were done. Rowling and Fforde have both done wonders with their works, but there are numerous other titles too. Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips, for one – I had a very similar idea about a week before I found the book. And Superpowers by David J Schwartz: I considered something very similar for about a month before finding it. But then there are books that I didn’t know I wanted to have written until after I’d read them. This brings us to The Rook – a book oddly written by an Australian, first published in the USA, but set very definitely in Britain.

Myfanwy Thomas wakes up in a London park, surrounded by gloved corpses and with absolutely no memory of how she got there. A letter in her pocket informs her of whose body she is inhabiting and she makes her way to a hotel to sleep and hopefully recover some memories. When none come, she finds another letter and is asked to make a choice. She can either run away and start a new life that the Myfanwy Thomas writing her letters has arranged for her, or she can choose to continue impersonating Myfanwy. Although originally going for the first option, when the time comes she finds it impossible to resist the second. Thus, her life becomes something rather strange indeed.

It turns out that Myfanwy Thomas is an operative in the Checquy, a top secret agency that deals with the supernatural, bizarre and downright weird. Everyone working for it has a superpower of some kind – Myfanwy can manipulate people’s nervous systems – and the positions of high office are named for chess pieces. Myfanwy is a Rook. She finds herself thrown into a world where the magical seems mundane, and she has to try and convince everyone that she is the real deal, which proves harder than one would imagine when she doesn’t know a thing about her predecessor.

Before look, Myfanwy and the reader are catapulted into a series of adventures involving a centuries old group of dangerous Belgian scientists who have given a whole new meaning to “biological warfare”, dragons, vampires, secret schools for the superpowered, a prophetic duck, and piles and piles of paperwork. On top of this, she must try and work out who it was that came before her and what happened. No small task when you can’t even remember your own address.

It’s hard to try and explain this book any further without ruining the surprises along the way. It’s mad, it’s intelligent, it’s incredibly funny, and it’s creative to all extremes. It seems nonsense, but it works, and everything hangs together neatly. The Rook plays with your expectations. The heroine is not a gung-ho adventure type, but a quiet, shy, efficient bureaucrat. What you think you see coming as the final showdown happens two hundred pages before the end, opening much more speculation about what the hell could come next. The exposition is neatly handled in a genuinely realistic way. The magic and powers on show are highly unusual and wonderfully creative. And best of all, there’s barely a hint of a romantic subplot, without having to resort to turning Myfanwy into a man-hater or indeed give any excuse for why she does or doesn’t seek a husband at every waking moment.

It’s peppered with wonderful, interesting characters, not least Myfanwy who is incredibly likeable, and everyone with a name is given some characterisation, often rather a lot. I’m particularly fond of Ingrid, Myfanwy’s super efficient personal assistant, and Gestalt, a mind with four bodies. The idea of having the original owner of Myfanwy’s body leave her a lot of notes behind to help her means that the exposition comes with humour and seems natural, rather than having to have the other characters explain things over and over again. Somewhat wonky in its chronology, jumping between narrators – primarily the two owners of the heroine’s body – it manages to grip you and keep you interested for nearly five hundred pages.

The book’s cover states “Welcome to MI5 … for wizards” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a science fiction fantasy mystery comic novel about a fully-realised, brilliantly constructed universe in which magic is kept hidden from the general population. O’Malley has given real thought to the history of this organisation, and the jokes come thick and fast, interspersed with some really quite horrific scenes.

I’ve gone a bit overboard on the adverbs today, but it feels necessary. This book is a gem of the genre – whatever genre that might be – and is sure to delight anyone who likes a bit of magic and mystery in their lives.

“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.