Modified: Unified, Part I by Kat Stiles
Modified is a superhero novel without the costumed heroes. The big bad guy—Derrick—is inflicting people with superpowers which he then apparently intends to use to control the planet. Powered individuals who don’t cooperate with his plans are used to develop a serum which temporarily gives others their powers. Our heroes are trying to stop him from doing this.
So the overall plot is quite respectable, but the more narrow plot of Unified Part I is injured by the fact that it only works if all of the heroes are really, really, dumb. When every character in the story notices that one of them is acting totally out of character but it doesn’t occur to any of these superpowered individuals that perhaps a shape changer has replaced him, that’s really hard to accept. Afterall, as the reader, I figured out what had happened during the first encounter with the doppelganger. The substitution wasn’t cleverly hidden and frankly that broke the suspension of disbelief that is necessary for any story to work.
I think that the overall situation in this series is worth exploring. Unfortunately, this book only sets the stage for that over arching plot.
I received this book free from Audio Book Boom in exchange for an honest review.
The Player Blackout by Lucas Flint
Most LitRPGs novels lock the hero in the game at some point to add tension to the story. The Player Blackout does it a little bit differently. The hero here is a small-town cop who died on his first day on the job. Why he is chosen for an experimental program that uploads brains into a gaming system is one of the mysteries of the story that we are trying to resolve. It’s that connection to the outside world (in this case a real-world mystery) that I really like in LitRPGs—stories where in what happens in the game matters in some way to life outside the game. Of course our hero, Winter, can’t get into the outside world anymore but that doesn’t lessen his interest in it. So this mystery has large potential for the series and I wish that Flint had spent more time developing it in this opening novel.
Over all, there’s tons of potential in this book, but Flint never fully takes advantage of it. For example, the first third of the story where he really needs to grab the reader’s attention is fairly slow moving. Winter is learning the mechanics of the game, but instead of showing him fighting and investigating as a new super, Flint skips most of this and spends his time showing the problems Winter has rescuing a cat from a tree. I’m sure this scene was supposed to be humorous, but it just didn’t work for me. The only other thing of interest that happens in these opening chapters is that Winter learns that a villain named Atmosphere knows his real world identity (which is a secret because his inclusion in the game is part of a top secret government experiment).
I should point out that it was quite obvious who Atmosphere was from the first time his name is dropped, and that his identity doesn’t make any sense. Clearly Flint understands this and has wrapped it into the larger mystery of who arranged for Winter to be downloaded into the game to begin with.
The pace picks up quite a bit when a new villain takes over the gaming world in an apparently unplanned revolution. Dark Cosmos cuts the game off from the outside world so that none of the players can log out, meaning that eventually, unable to eat, the bodies of the players will starve to death. Dark Cosmos offers the players two options to save themselves—kill him (which he claims is impossible) or bring him the low level Winter. Naturally the entire gaming world (pretty much) decides to go after Winter.
This is a great threat that I think Flint should have done more with—harrowing chases, etc. Instead Winter reaches the villain hide out really easily. Here we get some good action as he fights his way to his ultimate confrontation with Dark Cosmos. This last third of the book is by far the best. Yes, Winter continues to be dumb—defeating opponents and then forgetting to finish them off so they can recover and threaten him again, but the overall plot begins to advance. But even here Flint misses a major opportunity to knock his book out of the park. Dark Cosmos has been collecting players (heroes and villains) so he can torture them (because he’s…bad). When Winter needs a distraction at the end of the book, having those players go after Dark Cosmos in a massive powers battle would have been awesome and the (pretty good) battle Flint gives us for the ending could have still been worked in around the army of players trying to bring down the bad guy.
The ultimate ending also left me wanting more. No real progress is made resolving the big mystery of who put all of this in motion by arranging for Winter to be put in the game. Also, apparently no one expects the gaming company to suffer any serious consequences from having almost killed a few million players across the globe by losing control of their gaming system. I would expect every government on earth to start investigating/regulating the company. And I would suspect that a huge proportion of its gamers would never log on again. Saying they have good lawyers to fend off the civil suits seems to me to be a totally inadequate way of dealing with the ramifications of the book.
All of that being said, there’s a lot of potential in this story and Flint’s writing improved the deeper into the novel I got, so I have a lot of hope that the next book will keep getting better.
I got this book free from Audiobookcodes.com in exchange for an honest review.
The Good Fight edited by Scott Bachman
Here is a collection of a super hero stories designed to introduce the reader to the worlds of several authors in the field. It’s an enjoyable anthology featuring a lot of quick dips into various super hero worlds but none of the stories were strong enough to motivate me to invest in a new series. The ones that came closest for me was Out of Mind by Drew Hayes and Firedrake by T. Mike McCurly. These are two very different types of stories by two very differently powered heroes. The first tells of a man whom nobody can ever remember—and it was quite possibly the best story in the anthology. The second was a more traditional “get in a fight with the bad guys” tale. I had already read Marion Harmon’s Omega Night from his Wearing the Cape series, but as I’ve sung its praises elsewhere I won’t do so again here.
If you want a handful of quick fun reads in the superhero genre, you should enjoy The Good Fight.
Hoods by David Wilson
San Valencez has a problem. Gangs are overrunning the city and the cops are too corrupt to do anything about it. It’s not even safe for high school kids to get to and from school because every street seems to be the territory of one gang or another. Which sets up the action of the story…
Hoods is about four students with very low-level super powers who decide to band together and try and do something about the gangs. It’s a cute story—not particularly deep but with lots of fun action. Watching the superpowers get put to use is always enjoyable, although I wish there had been a little more time spent on character development. All in all, this is a simple origin story with the clear promise of more adventures to come.
As superhero stories go, I think Hoods ranks in the middle of the pack but has the potential to rank much higher with the next adventure. There’s just enough realism to ground the story in our world—no four color super heroic adventuring here. In fact, the four teens struck me more as low level batmen setting up their network to watch over their neighbors so they can sweep in to protect them. I couldn’t help but cheer for them so I’ll be keeping my eye out for volume two.
I got this book free from Audiobookcodes.com in exchange for an honest review.
Paragon by Riley Tune
This novel starts slow but has a wild finish. I can’t stress that point enough. After a couple of chapters I almost stopped reading the book, yet by the time I finished I was very glad I stuck with it—glad enough I’m fairly certain I’ll be reading the sequel. So let me break down the good and the frustrating.
On the positive side, Riley Tune has thought of a large number of superpowers and his characters often use them very well. He builds his story around both a mystery and a conspiracy. I found both fairly transparent, but that didn’t hurt the story. We’re watching a fairly dumb teenager slowly put the pieces together and it’s credible that he has more trouble doing it than the reader does. As he gets closer and closer to the truth, the tension builds and the final battle is highly enjoyable. A couple of the supporting characters are also very well drawn as Tune plays off our knowledge of famous heroes and uses that knowledge to steer our expectations. I respect that. It strengthened the ending considerably.
On the less positive side, I was frustrated by a couple elements in this story. First, I only began to like the main character in the last chapter or two. He’s a fairly stereotypical teen with a huge chip on his shoulders who is also certain that he knows everything he is ever going to need to know about living. That might be realistic, but it’s not attractive in a hero. It also makes him stupid. He has impressive force-field creating powers. But he never figures out very simple things he could do with his powers to quickly defeat just about anyone. For example, making a skintight force field around the face of any air-breathing foe. He also fails to simply enclose a mist-form villain in a force field, trapping her. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I also was disappointed in the world building. If you’re going to tell a serious superhero tale—and I believe that’s what the intent was here—there has to be at least some marginal credibility regarding the birth of new heroes and villains. Frankly a prep school for supers in which everyone talks about the need to decide one day if the students will become heroes or villains just didn’t do it for me.
That being said, the actual plot is pretty well thought out with critical elements being introduced early and then “forgotten” until they are needed later in the story. It’s always nice when you see that sort of planning come to fruition.
There’s a lot of potential in this series. I look forward to seeing what Tune will do with it.
Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas
The DC Icons series offers a glimpse of prominent figures in the DC universe before they have quite become the heroes (and villains?) the fans know. They are, presumably, geared toward a young audience, and thus far have been very effective. It’s also an obvious opportunity to retcon the subject of each novel for new audiences.
In Soulstealer Maas makes a couple of daring moves to set the stage for her story—she decides to link Catwoman’s origins to the League of Assassins (it’s possible that this is actually part of Catwoman’s background, but if so, I had never heard it before) and much more controversially she chose to set Catwoman against Batwing—not Batman—bringing all the tension and attraction from the original relationship to the new one. To do this she takes Batman out of Gotham on a secret mission and leaves the defense of the city totally in the hands of Luke Fox/Batwing.
Catwoman, fresh out of her training with the League, has come to Gotham with an agenda and begins carefully setting both Gotham’s elite society and its underworld on edge through a series of daring robberies. She hooks up with a young Poison Ivy and through her with Harlequin—who’s price for making it a trio of crime is the freeing of Joker from Arkham Asylum.
Batwing and the Gotham PD grow increasingly frustrated by their inability to stop Catwoman’s very public crimes. Yet something is not right in the background. The League of Assassins begins appearing, but they are trying to kill Catwoman, not support her plans. As law and order becomes ever more tenuous in Gotham it begins to become apparent that Catwoman is playing for much larger stakes than anything in a bank vault or around the necks of Gotham’s elites at the next gala.
This is an increasingly emotional story as the reader gets a glimpse into the woman behind the cat mask and heroes and villains both are forced to confront their biases and figure out where they really stand.
Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
I really enjoy superhero novels. I’ve probably read more than 200 of them—some amazingly good and some worthless pieces of excrement. This one ranks among the best. It is marketed as a Batman novel, but Batman doesn’t exist yet in this book. Instead we have eighteen year old Bruce Wayne who has not yet settled on his obsession to fight crime as the Batman. Wayne has just come into his billions when he tries to help the police in a high speed chase by using his sports car to stop the bad guy. They thank him by charging him with interfering with the police and he is sentenced to probation and community service—which he has to complete mopping the floors in Arkham Asylum. The novel than takes a turn toward Silence of the Lambs or Broken Time. An eighteen year old murderer, believed to be connected to the notorious Nightwalkers, will speak to Bruce when she’s refused to speak to anyone else. So the detective in charge of Bruce’s probation tries to use him to draw her out and the whole situation gets out of control.
This was a hard book to put down. While Bruce at eighteen is not what I imagined, he was a likeable character I could relate to. And having people like Harvey Dent showing up in the book really added to the enjoyment. This is Bruce before he’s lost to his life’s mission as the Batman and we get to watch him move closer to that vocation as the novel progresses. Hats off to author, Marie Lu, on a novel very well done.
Modified by Kat Stiles
Let’s start with a little truth in advertising. Modified is neither a short story nor a novel, it is the opening chapters in a larger story. It is not the first book in a series in the traditional sense. There is no resolution of the plot nor a comfortable stopping point for the reader to wait at until they get the next book. Presumably if you bought the boxed set you would get the equivalent of a novel. I don’t know. I haven’t decided if I’m going to invest in more of the series yet.
It’s unfortunate that the author chose to break her novel up in this way, because the plot to this point was enjoyable, if still in its infancy. Our heroine, Kate, is kidnapped for one night. We don’t know what happened to her during this time (nor does she) but she apparently gets a superpower given to her and has to figure out what it is, how to control it, and how to stop other people from taking advantage of her to abuse it. Most of that brief description is in the future of the series, but Kate is a strange but likeable heroine and Stiles does a decent job of introducing her and her problem. There is a small supporting cast also taking shape for what looks to be a light-hearted (if dark) super hero story. Modified has the potential to be a lot of fun.
Batman and Psychology by Thomas Langley
This is a fun overview of Batman and much of his supporting cast of friends, heroes and villains from the slant of trying to understand the characters through the modern psychology. I found the overview of the character’s history in comics, television and movies the most interesting part of the book with insights from the various authors and artists who have worked with Batman to be also highly interesting. There is a section where Langley explores how the Comics Code interfered with the development of Batman and resulted in Catwoman being exiled from the book for about a decade that was particularly fascinating. If you like Batman you will probably enjoy this book.
The Rules of Supervillainy by C. T. Phipps
This is a lighthearted romp through the mind of a supervillain. It’s a little slow getting started, but the story quickly grabs holds of you and enmeshes you in the problems of a man who is determined to be evil—sort of—all the while keeping the love of his wife who wants to be a hero. Throw in two ex-girlfriends—one a proud henchwoman and the other the greatest superheroine of the age—and “Merciless” will have you laughing at his antics. Things eventually get serious when mega-villainous (we want to destroy the world) type bad guys get brought into the plot. This story would have failed if Phipps took his story seriously, but since he doesn’t, give it a try and have some fun.
The Games of Supervilliainy by C.T. Phipps
The absurdity continues but with a darker twist as Merciless keeps finding himself on the wrong (that is to say the “right”) side of the battle between good and evil. There are a lot of laughs in this novel even as the situation goes from dark to darker and the ending sets the stage for an even bleaker sequel. It’s to Phipps credit that he can make these situations humorous.
The Secrets of Supervillainy by C.T. Phipps
Phipps obviously adores superhero comics and this series is a loving satirical homage to them. In this third installment, Merciless is trying to find a way to bring his wife’s soul back into her vampiric body while dealing with the hilarious mess of his life. To make matters worse, a massive conspiracy to take over the world is underway and the conspirators have decided they need to take him out first. Naturally Merciless, who insists he’s not a hero, is coming up with reasons to stop the bad guys.
I enjoy these novels, even if the first three have been a little too slow moving for my preference. My favorite parts are always the flashback scenes to Merciless’ college days when he’s unknowingly dating Ultragoddess, the greatest heroine in the world. They are always quite humorous and masterfully capture that nostalgic feeling old comics can bring to mind. The other thing I love about these books is how Phipps brings all the great themes and plot devices of comics into play in frankly ridiculous fashion. It just makes them fun.
Spiderman: The Lizard Sanction by Diane Duane
I’ve listened to the audio dramatization of this book at least a dozen times over the years. It’s thoroughly enjoyable with decent voice acting and great sound effects. The plot is a perfectly credible Spiderman adventure. Duane has a good grasp of the characters and writes a good fight scene. I have always found it unfortunate that Marvel didn’t produce more of these dramatizations of their novels (there were quite a few of these published back in the 1990s) as it’s a great way to get your super-hero-fix. It’s especially sad that they didn’t do the whole Duane trilogy so we can hear the whole story.
So Not a Hero by S. J. Delos
Supervillain books seem to be the rage these days and this one does it better than most. “Crushette” is trying to go straight and not getting a lot of support from anyone. She used to be the girlfriend of Dr. Maniac—one of the biggest bad guys in the U.S. but after a two year stint in prison she’d trying to leave the villain life behind and become a typical American—except she’s nine hundred pounds, super strong, mostly invulnerable and unable to stop getting into trouble. The story really picks up when she’s recruited onto a superhero team, the unimaginably named, “Good Guys”, and has to start confronting other people’s expectations and the dirty secrets of her past. This one is worth your time.
Some Kind of Hero by S.J. Delos
I quite enjoyed the first book in this series, but this sequel didn’t move me in the same way. First the good: I like the world Delos is building with its mix of heroes, villains and government agencies. It very easily could be a four color comic book which is a lot of what I look for in a superhero novel. On the other hand, Kao is suffering from two distinct problems in this novel. First, she is way too powerful and Delos doesn’t know how to challenge her at this power level. As a result I very rarely felt any tension at all in her fights. Second, and far more important, Kao caught a case of genuine stupidity and it affected her ability to fight the bad guys. (Maybe she had this problem in the first book and I didn’t notice, but it is glaringly obvious here.) Kao is super powerful, but her mind-numbing arrogance lets the bad guys get away again and again and again. I lost track of how many times she approached the bad guys, stopped to spout melodramatic nonsense at them, and as a result they got away to continue developing their nefarious schemes. Kao can fly, she’s very fast, and she’s super strong and highly invulnerable. Almost every time she surprises the bad guys and I think every single time she gives away this advantage so she can stop and tell them how stupid they are being for acting evil around her. And she never learns from her mistakes. Spider-man sprouts all kinds of great one liners at the bad guys, but he’s bouncing around like a super ball avoiding their attacks and smacking them all over the place while he does so. Not Kao. She just stands or hovers and spouts off and it didn’t work for me. (She also fails to share critical evidence which would prove to the heroes the identity of the bad guy, but that’s a whole different kind of stupidity.) Add in two highly depressing epilogues and I think I’m done with this series.
Super Sales on Superheroes by William D. Arand
This was the strangest take yet on the superhero genre. Felix is a totally unlikeable, self-centered, creep with a very low key superpower and dreams of doing better. He lives in a city just taken over by a major supervillain that is working under what we might describe as villainous laws. Felix is barely scraping by when he attempts to buy a hunk of exotic metal he thinks he might be able to use his power to turn into gold. Instead of metal, Felix accidentally buys an enslaved superheroine who was nearly tortured to death. He discovers that owning her somehow enhances his own powers and sets himself on a journey to buy all the superheroes and supervillains he can. Along the way, he starts fixing (i.e. healing) them and improving their power sets, which also magically increases his own strength. And along the way, he and his enslaved superheroes and supervillains start influencing each other in pretty interesting ways. I don’t know quite how to categorize this book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and happily await the sequel. Very original.
Super Sales on Superheroes 2 by William D. Arand
I think this book can best be described as a transitional piece setting the stage for the next books in the series. Unfortunately, whatever made the first novel fresh and exciting is long gone and I found it difficult to get too interested in the plot. Felix, the unlikeable protagonist, feels like a different character in this book. In the original novel, he needed the supers he kept purchasing to manage everything in his life for him but now he blithely gives out orders and gives the appearance of ultra-competence. It just wasn’t the same guy.
We also got our first look at the big bad who took over Skipper City in the last novel and she just didn’t come off as smart, capable or impressive. That was a huge disappointment.
On the other hand, there’s some decent world building as Arand puts pieces in place for future novels. Gods have returned to the world and are turning it upside down. We also learn that the planet of Super Sales is even more different from our world than the presence of super beings would suggest. There are plot threads in these revelations that will hopefully produce many good stories in the future.
The best aspect of this novel is the continued development of the supporting cast, especially the character Miu. She made for a convincingly and disturbingly insane villain and if perhaps we can’t quite figure out why she’s fixated on Felix, it did make for the most interesting storyline in the whole book.
Overall, my enjoyment of the first book kept me in there hoping and will get me to read the next one as well.
Super Sales on Super Heroes 3 by William D. Arand
The overall storyline is better in this novel than in its predecessor, but Arand still hasn’t recaptured the magic that made his first novel so interesting. Several years have passed and Felix and his Legion are enmeshed in city and inter-world politics. He meets a cousin with the powers of a demigod and gets a new assistant who starts taking over everything. She felt off from beginning to end of the novel and I can’t really figure out if she was supposed to. From page one I was waiting for her to betray Felix, but she seems to be yet another superpowered creature who is madly in love with him and again, I can’t figure out why. Felix is slightly more likeable in this novel, but that only makes him unlikeable as opposed to thoroughly dislikeable. Over all, this novel had a couple of interesting subplots but the main story felt dragged out and the villain revealing herself at the end felt contrived.