V Is for Villain
I love superheroes. Always have. And one thing I have loved about the last couple of decades is the collection of absolutely amazing movies that have come out in the superhero genre. All the X-Men films, the amazing Batman movies and of course the Toby Maguire Spiderman films. Relatively few books have cashed in on the idea of “supers” and given them a revitalizing spin, though, so I was delighted to come across this one, which gives a fresh take to an old genre.
Brad Baron doesn’t fit in at school. Sure, this is a common complaint amongst teens but Brad really doesn’t fit in at his school. In an academy where everyone has super strength, super flight, super agility, or at least super hearing, Brad has nothing. Well, he has enhanced intelligence but what good is that to anyone? Apparently not much since when Brad finds himself in phys ed class being yelled at by the coach for not participating in a dangerous game of flashbang (think football with explosive devices) he allows himself to be shamed/bullied into playing. Not surprisingly, a kid with super strength takes him out with one hit. Brad finds himself hospitalized, lucky to be alive and only damaged, not paralyzed. It is at this point that everyone (faculty and family) realizes that Brad is most likely not going to get super powers. The best thing to do is to put him in the alternative program at the academy, a repository for children of superhero families who have no super powers. Sure, Brad is still better than a regular but this means everyone has given up on him ever becoming a member of Justice Force like his brother Blake. Brad’s okay with that. He’s never thought superheroes are all that heroic anyway.
A big advantage to the move is that he finds a group of cool new friends. They share his less than stellar opinion of the “heroes” and urge him to join them in coming up with a way to show the world what the hero program really means for humanity. He’s down with that, especially if it means spending more time with Layla, a girl who seems to have one of the few super powers that is illegal. And who is convinced Brad shares it as well! But even as he talks politics with his friends and acts cool and radical, he begins to wonder just how far he is willing to go in this new life of his. And just where that road will take him.
This book reminded me a bit of Sky High, a Disney movie about a superhero high school with a group of teens with X-Men style powers. I was absolutely giddy when I saw that this book was a take on that idea. And I was thrilled that the author made it work.
Something else that absolutely works is how Brad as a character forces us to look at both the idea of what would happen if there really were supers in the world and the dynamics of family when one member has it all. Brad – and his friends – make a good argument for the fact that street justice where a hero uses superior strength to pummel a villain (as opposed to say arresting him) really isn’t such a good thing. They also point out that the monitors heroes use to watch for villainy are actually a huge invasion of privacy. The book uses a scenario with the government and the superhero program to point out how even the best laid plans of men can be twisted. It also gives a somewhat cool twist to the origin story for superheroes. And it questions how a world with “superior” human beings would really look (is there a hierarchy to humanity with the supers on top?) and points out how our values maybe aren’t in the best place to determine what constitutes “super”. We as a culture idolize beauty, strength and athletic prowess so much – what would happen if they became the primary scale by which we judged our species?
Since I normally hate any kind of political discourse in my books the fact that this one contained a ton of it and I didn’t run screaming from the book is a very positive sign. I feel it worked because the author isn’t having the teens lecture us on politically correct morality but having them really question what is happening. Brad especially is doing grown-up, independent thinking in an adult fashion for the first time and being a bit horrified at the conclusions he is coming to and what it all means.
He is also for the first time falling in love. Layla is the kind of sassy, irreverent, class-skipping trouble that he never met before since the portion of the school he was in taught a warped version of hero ethics (don’t be late for class or question authority, do beat the snot out of weaker kids). I liked that Layla was given a bit of depth and that she doesn’t just fall into Brad’s arms the minute they meet. There is something going on in that interesting head of hers and I am looking forward to finding out exactly what that is.
But most books have flaws and I felt one of them in this one is worth mentioning. Brad is supposed to have enhanced intelligence. Trust me when I say he sure doesn’t show that in this story. I would put myself at average and I was soaring ahead of him in just about every way. He doesn’t see traps, he can’t think his way out of problems in any way but the most rudimentary fashion and a conclusion he comes to with Layla shows us that he doesn’t just not understand girls but that he doesn’t have a clue about human beings. If there is a sequel (and the book definitely sets us up for one) I hope that this problem is addressed.
If you’re a superhero fan I don’t think that quibble is going to keep you from liking this book. I certainly found it a fast, easy, enjoyable read which had the added benefit of being thought provoking as well. I would absolutely recommend it to fans who enjoy a good science fiction story.