Nov 15 2007
SIWBI is a first novel about a cyborg and her superhero team trying to stop a supervillain from taking over the world. Although it has redeeming qualities and the author is clearly very talented, I would recommend it only for writers.
Other reviews have been mixed. Here are some Amazon excerpts.
- “This book reads more like a first draft than a published work.”
- “This excellent novel reminds me more than anything of The Unforgiven in its deconstruction and reconstruction of its genre.”
- “Most dismayingly, the two narrators sound remarkably similar, except that Fatale’s utterly flat sections lack the occasional moments of inspiration that sparingly pepper Dr. Impossible’s narrative.”
- “Absolutely delightful.”
- “The heroes don’t even take part in the fight that beats Impossible, yet the book wants you to feel like they’ve proved themselves at the end.”
SIWBI is not awful. It was, however, poorly executed and suffers from many flaws common to first novels.
Within the first thirty pages we were introduced to nineteen named characters and three super-groups. Most of the characters parrot a popular comic book character but without any kind of new angle, sort of like fan-fiction but with new names. These characters are so thinly-developed that you can only differentiate them by remembering who’s a ripoff of Superman and who’s Batman. For example, let me run down the eight (!) main characters.
1) Fatale. She’s the main protagonist and one of the two narrators. She’s a female cyborg and former NSA assassin, very much like Black Widow. That wouldn’t have been a problem, if the author had provided any personal spin or commentary or improvement on BW. Without those, the best she could have been was BW fan-fiction. She didn’t even get that far. Instead, she does remarkably little throughout the story. Instead of affecting the plot and making things happen, she does a lot of watching and ruminating, but neither her perspective nor her voice are interesting.
2) Dr. Impossible. He’s the villain and the other narrator. He comes closer to parodying Dr. Doom, which is a plus. Early on, his voice was engaging. Nonetheless, he still wasn’t nearly developed enough to drive a story.
3) Blackwolf, one of Fatale’s teammates. He’s a millionaire (or billionaire?*) martial-artist without any superpowers. He’s a clumsy homage to Batman, but a Batman with a curious penchant for waiting around as things happen. Even Batman fan-fiction wouldn’t inflict that on us. Shouldn’t he be, umm… Solving crimes? Running down leads? Figuring out Lily’s secret identity? Epic fight scenes? Emotionally scarring Robin?
*Pages 20 and 61 disagree.
4) Corefire (Superman/Reed Richards). Corefire is dead at the book’s start and still affects the plot more than any of the other heroes. His death makes more things happen than most of the characters do while alive. No, really.
5) Damsel (Wonderwoman). I can’t remember her doing anything but throwing up. I don’t know why they have this character.
6) Feral is Beast, minus the intelligence. He sounds like every other character, bizarrely like a high school student. (“This is all geek stuff”). If anyone needed a distinct voice, I’d say it’d be the mutant lab experiment.
7-9) Mr. Mystic (any magical hero), Elphin (a female Sir Justin), and Rainbow Triumph (Dazzler).
Fatale’s group has eight characters, hardly any of whom do anything. You might wonder what does happen. We learn a lot about another supergroup that has literally no bearing on Dr. Impossible’s villainous plot. Dr. Impossible gets beat up by another supervillain, who just lets him go and then never shows up again.
Inexplicably, we learn the origin story of one of the other supergroup’s heroes. Incidentally, it’s an enjoyable and funny play on the Chronicles of Narnia. But the only reason the author could have possibly wanted to spend a chapter on that character is to set up a sequel. I think it was a significant misuse of space. There were eight main protagonists. Surely one of them deserved that space more than a character whose only purpose was to set up a sequel. One excellent way to set up a sequel—perhaps the best way—is to develop characters that are interesting enough that we want to see more. DC/Marvel fan-fiction? Not so much.
Lack of Originality and Flavor
SIWBI looked so promising. The title and cover are outlandishly fun. The first few chapters felt fresh. But the last 80% of the book is painfully bland.
The plot went like this.
- The villain starts his evil plot.
- The heroes try to stop him but fail.
- The villain raises the stakes.
- The heroes stop the villain in the final climax.
Isn’t there supposed to be something more? For example, the Incredibles and Spiderman had interesting themes about specialness and responsibility. The Matrix and X-Men 2 had great action. SIWBI had boring action scenes (even for a novel) and, if there were any notable themes, I missed them completely.
Perhaps most notably, the villain’s grand plan is just absolutely lame. At one point, Impossible teases us by musing about his past attempts to seize world power with armies of mushrooms and termites and stuff. Termite armies would have been epic compared to this.
It wasn’t just the villain’s plot and the action. Pretty much everything about this story’s world was forgettable. Generic. Me-too. If I could use an example, I think there are 4 ways for a superhero story to show (or not show) how its superheroes interact with the government.
Model 1: The government’s missing. The hero ties up criminals and presumably the cops come along later, but we never see them. Or maybe the story mentions that the government has deputized the heroes, which is a generic way to make the characters feel more sympathetic than vigilantes without getting bogged down in politics.
Model 2: The government is a mild antagonist, like the cops that get in Spiderman’s way. This gives the heroes an obstacle to overcome.
Model 3: The government is a villain, like in X-Men. This gives stories a more ideological edge, but can be interesting because it takes more finesse to handle a hostile government than a hostile villain. (You can’t just randomly stab cops, unless you’re Wolverine).
Model 4: Very rarely, the government is a protagonist. The Hood uses two minor FBI agents and The Taxman Must Die rocks out with an IRS agent transferred to a super-crime unit.
SIWBI goes for option 1, mentioning that the government’s okay with the heroes doing their thing. That’s fine, if generic. Maybe no one else cares about the government! But it feels like every aspect of SIWBI is the equivalent of option 1 writing, an easy and conventional way to build a comic book world. You can’t develop every aspect of your world, but no aspect of this world is notable.
Narration and Voice
Each chapter was narrated by either Fatale or Dr. Impossible. They monologue a lot. Sometimes SIWBI’s monologues parody comic books, but usually they felt like weak storytelling. More importantly, Fatale is a poor choice for a narrator.
- Her back-story is cliché. She’s an injury victim-turned-cyborg, concerned about remaining human despite having mechanical parts. Boohoohoo.
- She’s new and doesn’t know what’s going on. That wouldn’t be a problem if introducing her to the world immersed us at the same time. It worked much better for Harry Potter and Frodo.
- She has no unique impact on the plot. Except for her inexperience, she brings literally nothing to the plot that other characters couldn’t replace.
- Even though she’s a cyborg superheroine, her voice was frequently hard to distinguish from a male megalomaniac supervillain. These characters should not have sounded at all alike.
There were a few chapters where I read through a page or two and found that I had actually mistaken the identity of the narrator. In one case, it took five pages.
Your readers should know quickly and without any doubt who is narrating each chapter. My rule of thumb would be that it shouldn’t take more than two paragraphs.
For example, here are a few ways to help readers keep the narrators apart.
- Write the narrator’s name right below the chapter title. This is 100% effective, though unsubtle.
- Use demographic cues. If the narrator mentions how her arm reminds her of a 1950s radiator, we can guess she’s a cyborg rather than a supervillain. If his tail swishes, we know he’s not human. Readers might miss these cues, but they draw the reader into the story more.
- Give them distinct voices! Making your characters sound different is definitely doable. It’s difficult, but it gets past the symptoms of voice confusion and addresses the problem, that your characterization and voice need work.
SIWBI attempted to identify the narrator by putting a graphic about the size of a gumball at each chapter’s start, a laser pistol for Impossible and an eye for Fatale. These graphics were too small to notice and I’m not sure why I would associate a laser pistol with a supervillain instead of a cyborg, or an eye with a cyborg instead of a villain.
All of the characters tended to sound alike. Here’s a multiple choice test: Who delivers these quotes from Soon I Will Be Invincible? Your choices are A) a mutant cat created in a lab accident, B) a genius millionaire gymnast-turned-businessman, and C) a whiny teen idol. (This should be easy, right?)
- “Maybe you should be at work, then. Spend some time on the streets.”
- “He always looks fine. I know you two kept in touch.”
- “Darkness? Crime, you mean.”
- “This is all geek stuff.”
- “You honestly think there’s something behind this.”
- “We haven’t seen a serious threat for almost a year. I’m almost bored.”
The first four are A and the last two are B. If you’re wondering why a mutated cat would use phrases like “geek stuff,” you’re not the only one. Notice that none of these lines actually came from the whiny teen idol, but pretty much all of them could have come from her.
I would recommend bringing in only as many characters as necessary. Each extra character is a liability.
- Each new character makes it harder for readers to keep track of the other characters.
- You have less time and space to develop each character.
- Adding characters leads quickly to superficial and underdeveloped relationships.
- Bloated casts ruin fight scenes. A book’s fight scenes are hard enough to visualize with two fighters, let alone SIWBI’s 7. (If you want to write epic fight scenes with many extras, could I suggest screenwriting?)
To paraphrase, redundant characters are reader kryptonite and should be removed. But how do we identify those characters? Generally, any character whose function/role in the plot can be performed by other characters can be axed.
SIWBI hit readers with eight characters whose only purpose was to represent a superhero archetype. For example, Mystic is the magical superhero and Feral is the mutated animal superhero. That’s not enough reason to add characters! Even if these characters were used well for parody/commentary– and they certainly were not– extra characters dilute every other character. If you absolutely needed characters like Feral or Elphin or Mr. Mystic to parody their respective archetypes, then it would make more sense to mention them as bit characters once or twice, rather than as Fatale’s teammates. That would have saved space for the few characters that did affect the plot.
I think SIWBI would have been much smoother and more coherent with only 3-4 characters on the superhero team.
- Fatale (or your favorite narrator; I prefer Lily).
- Someone to represent life before Fatale showed up (probably Damsel)
- Someone that can develop the narrator, usually by playing the foil or providing comic relief.
That leaves us with a core of three protagonists: the main character, status quo, and the foil. That’s elegant and flexible. You can go Harry-Hermione-Ron or Laurence-British society-Temeraire, for example. Three is easy, but a “core” of eight protagonists is completely unworkable. Depending on how you define “character” (such as minimum number of lines), I don’t know if His Majesty’s Dragon even has eight characters.