The Short Version: Victor Vale and Eli Cardale are college roommates who stumble onto something terrible and wonderful: the way to become superhuman. But when their trial runs go awry, Victor is locked up in supermax and Eli develops a God-driven belief that he must destroy all other ExtraOrdinary people. When Victor gets out, the question of who is the hero and who is the villain blurs even further…
The Review: It’s difficult to create an original superhero story these days. We’re arriving at peak-Marvel (if we haven’t passed it already) and the next five years are scheduled to the hilt with new events – both on film and in the actual funny papers – that won’t leave room for too much originality in the hopes of training and retaining audiences. This is not to say that originality can’t exist – Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ upcoming run on Black Panther prove that innovation can still happen – but it’s a hard world out there for those who’d seek to write a new kind of superhero story.
Enter V.E. Schwab, whose attempt at writing a new kind of superhero story is oddly enough grounded in the old-school, quieter vein – something that falls more in line with the low-key heroics of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable or the Netflix run of Jessica Jones than it does anything starring Mssrs. RDJ/Hemsworth/Evans/et al. She’s more interested in the humanity (or lack thereof) of our heroes and villains than she is in astounding superpowers and it’s to her credit that this book works as well as it does with such a heady intention. I just wish it worked better than it does, especially knowing what she’s capable of as an author.
The basic concept is great: superhuman abilities are bestowed upon people who come through near-death experiences, based on how it is that they try to fight their way back to life. I won’t give away any of the connections but I found this to be the most interesting, certainly most original part of the novel and I was fascinated to see how Schwab used this to explain various superpowers (regeneration/healing, resurrection, teleportation, and so on). Even the idea of two hot-headed college kids pushing each other further into research – it feels old-school, as I mentioned, a classic setup for hero/nemesis storytelling, but Schwab keeps us wavering a bit in the beginning. We don’t know, at first, who is meant to be the hero and who is the villain – or if those terms even really apply to this story. This constant dallying in the grey areas of morality is well-mined at this point in superhero tales (we get it, Batman, you’re conflicted) but Schwab keeps us guessing for a little while as to who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Not in a Suicide Squad kind of way but just in a “which of these two dickheads is actually the good guy?” way.
Because let’s get one thing straight: both of these guys are assholes. Victor is about thirty seconds away from being one of those guys who shoots up a classroom because he got friend-zoned and Eli’s arrogance (not to mention his squicky religious fervor, which borders on zealotry way earlier than it should to seem convincing) makes him completely one-note, despite mitigating descriptive notes about how handsome and charming he can be. And when they turn into superheroes – or, as Schwab calls them, ExtraOrdinary people (EOs, a naming convention that I never quite warmed up to) – they continue to show oddly two-dimensional characterization. And both of them seem relatively unfazed by the death of the point of their love triangle, to such an extent that I completely forgot it happened until Eli brings it up again in the last third of the novel. All of this led me to the feeling that things were too sketched out, not shaded in enough, to really allow me to see the world of the novel as living and breathing. Even the city of Merit feels like a vaguely outlined riff on Gotham or Metropolis or Starling City than a city that truly lives and breathes – something I was admittedly hoping for, based on the pulp comic cover of the novel.
Rating: 3 out of 5. It’s this lack of fully inhabited characters that kept me from loving this book. The ideas are so strong but the people exploring those ideas often feel like mechanisms in a contraption, especially thanks to the rotating points of view that (for example) show us quite clearly what Serena’s power is even while Victor & co spend a hundred or so pages trying to figure it out. Even the whole “ExtraOrdinary” schtick (as opposed to just calling them superhuman, superheroes, etc etc) felt like a flashbulb idea that doesn’t hold up to novel-length scrutiny (although this might just be personal taste because, frankly, it annoyed the daylights out of me for some reason). We know, in our modern world, that heroes and villains aren’t so clearly defined along lines of Good and Evil – and Schwab plumbs those uncertain depths with intensity, earning full marks for imagination and willingness to, as they say, “go there”. It was just the execution that felt a little forced on this one.