Ex-Heroes

Ex-Heroes
by Peter Clines

Once, they were superheroes. Once, they battled crime, befriended one another, and protected their individual cities and neighborhoods.

That was before.

A year ago, people stopped dying. Oh, sure, they’d die, but then they’d get up and try to kill you. It spread like a virus. Now the last of the superheroes have brought together the last of humanity in walled-up city. They protect. They try to nurture. They really don’t want to lead.

And now something worse is happening. The zombies are getting organized. And one of them speaks. Is there really life after “unlife”? Does that mean they’ve been murdering all their friends and relatives when they kill the zombies?

Or is there something far, far more sinister going on?

After reading quite a few books aimed at younger readers, I found it refreshing to read an adult novel.

Yeah. Adult. With superheroes and zombies.

Shut up.

Anyway, the novel takes the “realistic grit” of The Dark Knight and mashes it up with The Walking Dead to create a unique world with a very knowing sense of humor. Early on in the novel, one of the “standard humans” tells the main superhero, “Spider-Man would take you in a fight.”

St. George, the hero, responds, “That’s a comic book.”

“Yeah. You’re a superhero.”

Think a Buffy the Vampire type sense of humor, even in all the drama. The mix of grit and comedy, at least here, worked very well for me.

Clines plays within the horror and superhero genres well. We see some superheroic archetypes – for instance, the “Batman” character, a woman by the codename Stealth, serves as the primary strategic push for the remaining humans. We have Cerebus, an Iron-Man type smart human encased in some fancy armor (actually, she’s a bit more like War Machine, come to think of it…). The lead hero, St. George, is a sort of powered-down Superman. Sort of. Clines obviously knows his source material well enough to take what works and still make it unique.

There are many variants of zombies. (Yes, there really are!) Clines uses some neat twists on the standard trope. I really appreciated early on his playing down of the menace. St. George instructs a group of non-powered humans accompanying him on a scavenging mission, “Just be smart. They’re not dangerous. Don’t run. Don’t panic.” And it works well. Zombies in ones and twos aren’t dangerous. And yet, a sense of doom hangs over the whole affair. I also enjoyed that he rarely used the term “zombie.” The protagonists call them “exes.” As in ex-humans.

I relished the pace of the book. Rather than dealing with the zombie outbreak directly, Clines sets the bulk of the action about a year later. Every few chapters, he has a flashback chapter told in first person from various superheroes as they react. The layering of the stories provides an effective emotional kick.

As with the best zombie stories, the zombies aren’t really the enemies. The living make far more menacing antagonists. Clines heightens the tension and the horror by using both the living and the dead to threaten our protagonists.

Stories like this can be very hard to portray in prose form. Anytime there’s a lot of action, it takes a canny writer to keep everything together. Clines excels here as well. The climactic scenes, when the last of humanity makes its last stand, works so very well.

Are there any negatives? Well, yes. Clines leaves a few hanging plot threads. I understand that he has written two more novels that follow up on this one; I don’t know if he intended a series with this first volume or if it was intended to stand alone. If this was a stand alone, frankly, it didn’t work so well. As a “pilot” for a series, though, it sings. It works. I want book two.

I mentioned before that the zombies by themselves don’t serve a very potent threat. While I enjoyed that twist, at the end they get to be… well, more like “flavor” than real antagonists. I’m not sure what I think of that.

While I did enjoy the heroes’ insistence on not killing, at the end, it more stood in the way of the story in my mind. The insistence seemed less a moral quandary than a reason to keep the story going a bit longer. Call it the Joker problem, if you will – at some point, Batman (or, if I were in charge, a different character) should really just kill Joker for all the things he’s done. Same thing here. While I don’t want to see the superheroes tarnished with killing, another character should have stepped in.

All those together, though, are basically nitpicks. The good far outweighs the bad for a good novel, a good story, a great plot, and fun and realistic characters.

And perhaps, best of all: Despite a gritty setting, despite a dying world, this book doesn’t feel dark. Toward the end of the book, St. George explains something that made me squee.

Yes, squee.

Once again, shut up.

Anyway, he explains that growing up, he loved a British science fiction show “you’ve probably never heard of.” Yeah. He’s talking about Doctor Who.

Stealth, whom he’s speaking to, responds, “I am familiar with it. Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt—“

“No,” I said. “The new show’s great, but I grew up on the old one. The low-budget, rubber monster show with Tom Baker and Peter Davison. I watched it on PBS all the time as a kid.”

I looked out at the dark ruins of Hollywood, at the stumbling shadows dotting the streets as far as you could see. The only other living person within half a mile was standing behind me, her eyes boring into my head.

“The Doctor didn’t have superpowers or weapons or anything like that. He was just a really smart guy who always tried to do the right thing. To help people, no matter what. That struck me when I was a kid. The idea that no matter how cold and callous and heartless the world seemed, there was somebody out there who just wanted to make life better. Not better for worlds or countries in some vague way. Just better for people trying to live their lives, even if they didn’t know about him.”

I turned back to her and tapped my chest. “That’s what this suits always been about. Not scaring people like you or Gorgon do. Not some sort of pseudosexual role play or repressed emotions. I wear this thing, all these bright colors, because I want people to know someone’s trying to make their lives better. I want to give them hope.”

And you know what?

This guy gets Doctor Who. And the character gets Doctor Who. And yes, that character, the main character, despite all the grit and horror around him – he keeps the story from going dark. He keeps it from being depressing. And because of that, I loved not only the character but the entire novel.

Imagine that… a zombie novel that isn’t dark, but still holds all the menace and horror a zombie story should have.

So, yes. I enjoyed the book. Which means I’ve gotten a good number of good books lately.

I hope the trend continues!

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