Friday 24 December 2010

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

I can't quite recall how I came to choose this book for review, because it isn't my usual reading fare. It combines two fantasy sub-genres, superheroes (I sometimes watch these on film but don't read about them) and zombies (which I neither watch nor read). However, I decided to regard it as educational and pressed on.

The time is the near future, when two different events have completely changed the world. The first is when a few ordinary people began to acquire specific superhero powers. The principal character is known as St George, an invulnerable crime-fighter of immense strength who can leap over buildings and breathe fire, but others include Gorgon, who can drain people's life force with his eyes, Zzap, who turns into a being of pure energy, and Cerberus, a young female engineer who has no superpowers but has developed a huge, powered, armed and armoured fighting suit. And then there is the mysterious Stealth, a beautiful woman dressed head to toe in a skinsuit, who is formidably intelligent as well as superhumanly fast and strong, and becomes the superheroes' leader.

The second event is far more serious and follows shortly after the first; zombies begin to appear in increasing numbers. They are driven by a desire to bite healthy people, who sicken and die and become zombies themselves. The only way to kill them is to destroy their heads. An initial slowness to react and take the drastic measures necessary to contain the outbreak means that it has spread around the world. Even many of the superheroes fall victim to them, and return to fight their former comrades.

As Ex-Heroes begins, almost the entire human population has become zombies. A few thousand people survive in Los Angeles in two groups: one, supported by the surviving superheroes, is concentrated in the Paramount Studious complex, a walled area which can be defended against the surrounding hordes of zombies. The other, much larger, group is a criminal gang known as the Seventeens, who attack the other humans and superheroes when they can.

The chapters initially alternate between "now" and "then"; the ones set in the past each focusing on a specific superhero as the zombie plague begins, and thereby introducing the reader to the characters in more detail than the main narrative. Towards the end of the book, the attention is very much on "now"; the fight for survival against the zombies and the Seventeen, which reveals the limitations of even the most powerful superhero.

The plot is unusual, the story well written, the characters developed well enough to engage the reader, and it's a gripping tale from start to finish. I have only two reservations; it's a very grim dystopia (although with a glimmer of hope at the end), and there are an awful lot of gruesome fight scenes with the zombies. It made an interesting departure for me, but has not inspired me to want to read any more books about zombies!


Bill Garthright said...

Frankly, Tony, it's the superhero part that doesn't appeal to me. Zombies can be fun. I loved Max Brooks' World War Z, and I think you would, too. But violence against mindless zombies doesn't bother me much (or at all).

But superheroes just don't work for me, not even in movies (although better in movies than in novels).

Anthony G Williams said...

What I rather liked about the superheroes in this story is that their limitations kept being emphasised - indeed, they all came close to death.