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Monday, June 27, 2011

Ex-Heroes - Peter Clines

How awesome are superheroes?  Uh, super awesome.  How awesome are zombies?  Uh, not as much.  Of course, anyone who has read my blog in the past is aware that I'm not exactly pro-zombie.  Why am I reading more zombie fiction then?  It's simple - I love post-apocalypse fiction and in this day and age that's pretty much synonymous with zombies.  So, here I am reading Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.  Turns out another tired zombie novel can be really entertaining and not so tired as I might have imagined.

A year ago society collapsed when a virus struck, turning its victims in unthinking, shambling, and voracious zombies.  It fell to the Mighty Dragon, Stealth, and their other hero companions to protect the thousands of survivors in their film studio-turned-fortress.  But, zombies hordes are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group is coming and they have "heroes" of their own.

Ex-Heroes at its heart is a straight forward zombie novel.  Zombies roam the streets.  Humanity keeps them at bay, but barely.  What sets Clines' novel apart from the shambling hordes is how he uses his superheroes as catalysts.  Where most focus on human stories to juxtapose the gruesome inhumanity of zombies, Clines tells of super-humans, possessing powers ranging from super-strength, to vampiric gaze, to a couple tons of exoskeleton badassery.  It's unfortunate that in using characters that are nigh invulnerable he loses something of the novels empathy.  This leaves the emotional content of the novel to rely solely on the disassociation of reality (horror of zombies) and the equally bereft superhero guilt (Why can't I save everyone?!).

In place of the emotional content that might be found in zombie novels like Feed or World War Z is a smorgasbord of comic book action.  Clines' superhero characters pop off the page and by novels end are nearly as iconic as the Justice League or the Avengers (ok, not quite that iconic).  Each chapter reads like a standalone book as though it were meant to be released as a serial.  He divides the narrative into a Then and Now structure where several chapters in a row focus on the novels overall plot punctuated by "flashbacks" to before the apocalypse.  These lookbacks provide functional prequels to each of the heroes and ex-heroes headlining the novel.

For the most part Clines prose is adequate, but occasionally repetitive.  I can't begin to count the number of times the sound of zombies was likened to "clacking".  Yet every time the heroes lurched into action the descriptions were terrific.  One of the "prequel" chapter was of particular note when a magician dons a medallion to become a crime fighting demon.  The entire chapter is written as a one sided conversation where the reader is only privy to the narrator's responses but none of the questions.  It's a brilliantly written chapter that really displays Clines comedic chops and talent as a writer.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the deft use of cultural references throughout Ex-Heroes.  It is rare to find something in the speculative fiction genre that makes a genuine attempt to connect with popular culture.  Clines uses internet memes and television phenomenons that put me inside the story and made it all the more real.  This was my world that had been torn asunder not some second world fantasy constructed by an author for his own devices.

In all, I very much enjoyed Ex-Heroes.  It's a fun post-apocalypse romp that refuses to get bogged down in the standard zombie woe-is-me malaise.  Instead it focuses on being cool.  For comic fans, the novel would be an excellent transition to more long form novels and for anyone who's read Deadpool the use of pop culture and humor will be familiar.

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