Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

Imagine that super heroes are real. And that, whatever gave them powers also seems to have created zombies, or the equivalent. Humanity has been wiped out, but there are bastions where super heroes protect them from the advancing zombie hoard. That is the world of Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines.

I really liked how Clines makes super heroes maybe just a bit more realistic, a bit more relatable. He even gives them a credible origin. While many of the heroes are based on standard archetypes, they have unique personalities that give them a bit more depth:

  • St George is the Superman character.
  • Stealth is the leader, a Batman-like character who happens to be an ex-lingerie model.
  • Gorgon can absorb the powers and strength of anyone who looks him in the eye.
  • Cerberus is the Iron Man character, a former military scientist, she feels at home in her armor.
  • Zzzap is essentially energy personified.

There are many others, but the plot revolves around these central characters. In the first book (Ex-Heroes is the first of at least six books exploring this zombie world), the heroes are pitted against a ruthless gang of ex-humans and must defend their home, a converted movie studio, from their constant advances. The ex-humans include some former heroes and villains that have become zombies.

As opposed to the more sanitized Marvel and DC universes, the heroes here are more like real people. They swear, they have sex, they kill when they think they must, and they die. Permanently (at least, in the first book). Given the grand scope of characters and the fact that Clines is willing to kill some off, you never know who might survive. This provides the tension needed to keep the plot rolling and to keep you engaged. Book 2 is certainly on my read list.

My favorite line from the book references one of my favorite characters, Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, Stealth is dwelling on the ex-humans and their sudden appearance in the world. Thinking to herself, she says:

In one of the earlier Sherlock Homes mysteries, Arthur Conan Doyle (not yet a Sir) made an observation on logical deduction. When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
There is, however, a specific flaw in that maxim. It assumes people can recognize the difference between what is impossible and what they believe is impossible.

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

The Quantum Magician, the first part in The Quantum Evolution trilogy, by Derek Künsken. It’s been a long time since I read it — I really should write about the books I read as soon as I finish…

The Quantum Magician is the story of a space con job. The lead on the job, Belisarius Arjona, is what is called Homo quantus, a new species of humans that has been engineered to be able to directly interact with the quantum world. His species isn’t the only new ones, there is a group of people called the Puppets, that are engineered for religion and another group bred for a planet consisting only of water so have bodies that can withstand the pressures of the deep ocean. There are artificial intelligent (AI) beings, some of which are priests. All of this is against the backdrop of worlds that are at odds with one another, with one group holding power over the others. It is in this universe that Belisarius is pulling off the greatest of con jobs.

Behind the plot is a discourse on the future of humankind, the role of evolution in driving us, and the next steps in that evolution. In a world where AI beings can be created that have complete personalities and lives, what is the role of the programming that created them? “Evolution created a set of algorithms that, interacting together, created consciousness in humans. And yet those algorithms still link food and pleasure, hunger and pain. If you were creating a wholly synthetic being, and you programmed them to be happy when they’re fed, how is that different?”

Another theme is the pursuit of knowledge versus the pursuit of power. “They’re struggling for who’s in charge and who has the most money when questions of how the cosmos works are all around them, unanswered.” With all of the resources we have, why do we use them to accumulate more instead of trying to understand the world around us? Is that not a sufficient goal in and of itself? Do we need to strive to be on top, to be above those around us?

Belisarius isn’t the most sympathetic of characters. And some of the ideas Künsken comes up with are very weird and twisted. The whole Puppet society and their weird and twisted take on religion verges on the edge of disturbing. If I have one disappointment, it is that, while the future of people, the next steps of guided evolution, are intriguing, the technology of Künsken’s future is less unique, is less well developed, at least for me. But, the characters are interesting and the plot is an adventure ride, so I’ll be coming back for part two.

In the Night Garden by Catherynne M Valente

In the Night Garden, part one of The Orphan’s Tales, Catherynne M. Valente tells the story of a strange little girl who is hidden in the gardens of a palace. Or rather, the girl tells the stories, to the young prince who, against the wishes of his parents, befriends the girl. The story she tells weaves in and out of other stories, as the characters in her stories encounter others who then tell their stories. The plot weaves through a prince who encounters a witch, leading to the tale of a grandmother, and then a wolf, and then back to the witch, and then to a nursemaid, and so on.

Filled with fantastical creatures, mythical places, and wizards and witches, In the Night Garden isn’t just one story, but is a tapestry of stories that are interwoven, leading to a dense cloth that continually comes back on itself. At times, it becomes a challenge to remember who’s story you are reading, as they bounce back and forth quite often. As perspective shifts from one character to another, we find that one with seemingly evil or nasty intentions actually has their own back story that is rich and full, that they have motivations that drive their actions that make sense. Every character is fleshed out in a way that is unique, giving everyone such depth.

Valente has a nice touch with words. Her characters all have unique voices, which is impressive given how many different characters we get to know from their own perspective. They come alive with utterances like “I loved the changing character of the sea, how it could be choppy and gray or smooth as glass, like the brow of a wife” or “all things built with tax money are beautiful: so we must think or go mad.” Given that a prince is one of the main characters, there is a lot of talk about kings and power:

  • “In fairness, Kings are often quite as dense, calling themselves scared vessels and masters of all things above and below when in fact they command a few patches of lonely dirt with even lonelier houses sitting upon them.”
  • “Only Princes believe in the greater good. Kings know there is only the Reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.”
  • “That’s how kinds are made, my brush-tailed girl — they pick a place, shove a stick in it, call themselves King and wait to see if someone gets angry about it.”

The girl at the heart of the story, that begins the tale, so far only describes the stories of others. That seems to be her gift. Exactly how she fits in the plot itself isn’t revealed yet. There are a lot of threads that make part of this tapestry and I’m excited to see what pattern they make when put all together.

Senlin Ascends by Josian Bancroft

The premise of Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft, is… odd. In Thomas Senlin’s world, which is somehow modeled on ours but is just enough different, there is a tower of Babel, a monument to some powerful and previous civilization that is at the center of Senlin’s dreams. The tower is the epitome of knowledge and Senlin, a school teacher, desires more than anything to bask in its glory. When he gets married, this is where he takes his bride for their honeymoon.

However, the tower is nothing like he imagined, like the guide books he devoured described. The book describes his journey in the tower, which feels so much like an odd adventure quest. As Senlin learns about the tower, he learns about himself as well, and grows from the timid school teacher into something more.

So, the plot really revolves around Senlin understanding the true nature of the tower and encountering various characters and executing various tasks, almost like a strange role playing game. The tower would be an excellent setting for such an adventure. It almost reminds me of these roleplaying adventures I led when I was a kid, where we had a random dungeon in which each room was a random environment or place. The tower almost feels the same. As Bancroft writes in an interview at the end, he wrote this book because “I liked to be surprised and delighted, liked to gasp and laugh, and wanted to share the whole mad experience with someone else.” The tower is the perfect place to share such experiences. Anything goes, and what happens in one level doesn’t have to have anything to do with the next level.

But, what makes the story stand out isn’t so much the plot but the characters and the setting. The tower is its own character, with each level a completely different setting with its own set of people and activities, essentially a world unto itself.

One of the first things Senlin encounters after making it inside the tower is a beer-go-round, where people have to pedal, making the entire thing spin, until enough energy is pumped into the machine to make beer spray everywhere.

As Senlin makes his way through his journey of discovery, of both the tower and himself, he meets a number of characters that challenge his world view. “Never let a rigid itinerary discourage you from an unexpected adventure,” they tell him, and “I’d rather be a nothing at the center of everything than a puffed-up somebody at the edge of it all.” He meets powerful people that pull the strings, at least in their part of the tower. These people provide him lessons in power: “The powerful never trust. They respect and are respected. Trust is a weak bond, and it is for the weak.” and “Powerful mean fail just as much, if not more often, than the failures. The exceptional thing is that they admit it; they take and hold up their failures. They claim their disappointments; they move on!” Each person Senlin encounters teaches him something new, provide him a new perspective on life and the world that he had never considered.

This is the first in The Books of Babel trilogy. I’m certainly looking forward to what Senlin finds as he keeps climbing the tower.

The Rising and The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

In The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis introduced a world in which the Dutch had found a magical/alchemical way to create robotic servants and soldiers that were much stronger and faster than any human and never tired. They had used these creatures to essentially conquer the world, with the exception of a remnant of France that struggled for survival in what they called “New France,” a colony of France in the Americas. What the Dutch never realized is that their creations were more than simple machines, they think and have their own wills, though those are subjugated to the demands of their Dutch masters in their creation. A few of these machines, called Clakkers, break free, becoming rogue. Really, this is their story.

In The Rising and The Liberation, the second and third book in Tregillis’ Alchemy Wars trilogy, the war between the French and the Dutch, and the consequences of one Clakker, Jax, gaining free will, are followed. The points of view shift between different characters, typically focused on three different perspectives in each book. The Rising is really focused on the last battle in the war between the Dutch and French, with the fate of the French civilization in the balance. But, a new power arises in the meantime and The Liberation follows that new development.

Without going into the plot, again Tregillis focuses on what it means to have free will, what having command of your choices means, and the cruelty that people can exert on one another. Some of the characters are truly vicious, some out of perceived necessity, others because that is inherent to their nature. I like that, in Tregillis’ world, things aren’t black and white. Characters nominally on the side of good act abhorrently, while others that might be thought of as evil do good deeds. They all have realistic motivations and often think they are doing what is best, even if that means being cruel to others. These aren’t superheroes that always make the morally best choice, they make the best choices to advance their survival or their cause, which are sometimes morally dubious.

If I have one quibble, the climax of the series is a bit abrupt and it isn’t quite clear what the characters were doing to make it happen. But, the rest of the story flows well, the characters are well developed, and the more philosophical aspects of the story form a great backdrop. There is a lot in this world that remains unexplored, including the fate of the other peoples of the world, which is only alluded to; the future of the Clakkers; and the real mystery about their creation. There is a lot of rich territory here that can be mined if Tregillis so desires.

This is a series I may well revisit again in the future.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.