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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Superpowers" by David J. Schwartz

Read Reviews via The Book Swede + Torque Control

AUTHOR INFORMATION: David J. Schwartz is the author of “The Sun Inside” novella and over twenty-five short stories which have appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror collections, “Paper Cities” (Reviewed HERE), Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated anthology “Twenty Epics”, etc. “Superpowers” is his first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: In the summer of 2001, five college juniors, housemates, overindulge in some home-brewed beer and wake up the next day with a hangover—and superpowers… Caroline Bloom can fly, Harriet Bishop can turn invisible, Charlie Frost can read minds, Mary Beth Layton is more powerful than a locomotive, and Jack Robinson is faster than a speeding bullet. But the transition from superpowered to superheroes is a rough one. They soon realize that Madison, Wisconsin is short on supervillains, and while costumes may protect their identities, they can’t keep them from making mistakes. As things get more complicated and more dangerous, it becomes increasingly apparent that humanity as a whole may not be ready for them…

CLASSIFICATION:Superpowers” is not a superhero comic book wrapped up to look like a novel. It’s not a whimsical satire like “Soon I Will Be Invincible”. And it’s not Heroes, so don’t expect supervillains, a “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World” type plot, or mysterious intrigue. Sure, there are bits and pieces of the aforementioned in the book, and I would also say Spider-Man, Gen13, and Smallville, but as a whole, David’s novel is really a drama about real people dealing with real problems who just happen to have superpowers. So even though there’s superheroic action, numerous comic book/pop culture references, and witty humor, “Superpowers” is mainly a poignant, emotionally hard-hitting tale about people like you and I. This is probably not the best description for the book, but think
George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards/Watchmen meets Dawson’s Creek/One Tree Hill meets the film Crash

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 384 pages. Instead of chapters, the book is broken up into ‘days’ starting with Saturday, May 19, 2001 and ending on Friday, October 19, 2001. Narration is in the third-person and alternates between a host of characters including the five superpowered college juniors and a ton of supporting players—Harriet’s dad, Detective Ray Bishop; reporter Prudence Palmeiro; Jack’s mom Fern; roommate Scott, etc. “Superpowers” also includes short first-person Editor’s Notes by Marcus Hatch who ‘wrote’ the book. “Superpowers” is a standalone novel, but there’s room for additional stories.

June 5, 2008 marks the UK Trade Paperback (see inset) publication of “Superpowers” via
Vintage Originals. June 10, 2008 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication via Three Rivers Press. Cover art is provided by

ANALYSIS: Superheroes have been in existence since the late 1930s when such iconic characters as Superman and Batman first debuted, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that superheroes really broke into mainstream society thanks to the success of such movies as X-Men and Spider-Man. Nowadays, superheroes are everywhere. Comic book movies have become a mainstay of the film industry; Heroes is one of the most popular shows on television; animation/video games have never been better, and prose fiction is starting to get hot. Of the last,
George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards is reaching out to a new generation with “Inside Straight” (Reviewed HERE), while Austin Grossman’sSoon I Will Be Invincible” (Reviewed HERE), Perry Moore’sHero”, “From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain” and Rob Rogers’Devil’s Cape” were all released in the past couple of years. Continuing the trend of superhero prose fiction is David J. Schwartz’s debut novel, “Superpowers”…

Superpowers” was not at all what I expected. From the synopsis and cover art I was anticipating something satirical, maybe an X-Men knockoff, or at the very least, a light-hearted YA adventure romp. Instead, the book is a deep, emotional and meaningful look at humanity which tackles such powerful and relevant topics as rape, cancer, child-parent relationships, the definition of a hero or villain, accountability, tolerance, 9/11, and change.

Things always change. Things changed today, and tomorrow they’ll change again. But people don’t change very much. People die and people lose their jobs and people move, but they stay pretty much the same. Is that a good thing?

Of course the book is not all seriousness. There’s a lot of wit and humor in “Superpowers”, especially at the beginning when the characters first discover their abilities, are learning to control their powers, and when they decide to become a team of superheroes.

Objects burst into flame at your touch? Can’t urinate without shattering the toilet? If you’ve found yourself gifted with superpowers that you don’t know how to use, call the Super Freaks Hotline, and we’ll get you back on your way to becoming a productive member of society. Meet others like yourself. Get help with costumes and code name selection. All in a discreet environment safe from prying government agents.” —Harriet imagining what a hotline might sound like.

First, Madison doesn’t need a superhero group due to its tragic shortage of supervillains. Second, if we dug up some supervillains we’d have to fight them, which I don’t know how to do, and getting killed isn’t on my list of summer plans. Third, Harriet just said it’s illegal (Vigilantism). Fourth, I already have a job, and school, and a social life. Fifth, I don’t look good in spandex. Should I go on?” —Caroline on why a superhero group is not a good idea.

For comic book fans, there are references to such recognizable characters as Spider-Man, Flash, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four, not to mention the superpowers, costumes and code names—Madison All-Stars—but for the most part, “Superpowers” is pretty light in this area, especially with the lack of any supervillains and not discussing how the All-Stars received their powers in the first place. David does a good job of realistically visualizing how normal people might adapt to suddenly developed superpowers and how the public might react to superheroes in modern society, but I did have a few nitpicks. For starters, even though we get to see Charlie, Mary Beth and Harriet learning to control their new abilities, it seems like Jack and Caroline are able to adjust to theirs pretty quickly. I don’t know about you, but I would think that learning how to fly or run at supersonic speed would be just as difficult to learn as reading minds or turning invisible, if not more so. Plus, I don’t understand how someone who can fly or run fast can also carry someone at the same time. It’s not like they were blessed with super strength too :) I would also think that college students suddenly granted with amazing superpowers would use those abilities to their own personal advantage. While it would be nice to imagine that everyone would be as self-sacrificing as the All-Stars, I think the reality is a little less noble. It’s just one of a few issues that aren’t addressed to their fullest potential in the book, along with the idea of what makes a hero and trying to juggle life as a superhero on top of work, school and a social life…

As far as the pop culture references, while the book is trendy enough, there’s little slang used and the references are fairly obvious, and in some cases outdated, although that’s more because of the 2001 setting. The prose itself is a little dry and lacks that special flair to really grab the reader’s attention, but it’s more than competent. Still, while these areas may suffer some, it doesn’t really hurt the book too much because the novel is more about the people anyways, and in this regard, David is fantastic.

From the main protagonists to the lowly criminal who only gets a few pages of face-time, the people in “Superpowers” are marvelously crafted. Not only do they feel like real people, but their personalities and traits are distinctive, their backgrounds are amazingly fleshed out, and it’s easy to sympathize with the characters and their problems, including a father dying from cancer, a mother that is never there, internal demons, etc. While David definitely spreads the love, the All-Stars remain the focal point of the book and it is their pain that is most fascinating. Speaking of the All-Stars, I absolutely loved the symbolism between each All-Star’s superpower and that character’s personality/issues: Mary Beth is short, weak, and a bookworm, so while it may seem odd that she was gifted with super-strength and invincibility, it also makes a kind of perfect sense. Charlie lives in his mind, has a vivid imagination and fantasizes a lot, so what happens if he’s suddenly able to read other people’s thoughts and fantasies? Jack is trying to run away from problems at home, but not even super-speed can outrun tragedy. Harriet is haunted by past demons and as much as she would like to pretend she can’t see them, invisibility doesn’t solve anything. Lastly, Caroline is stuck in a mundane existence and only when she’s flying does she really feel alive…

CONCLUSION:Superpowers” may not have been the novel I was expecting, but that’s a good thing :) I’ve read countless issues of superhero comics, seen most of the comic book movies out there as well as Heroes, watched the animated TV shows & films, and played the videogames, but David J. Schwartz’s novel stands apart from everything else because it brings something new to the table by humanizing the genre in a way I’ve rarely seen or felt before. Granted, the book has its issues and is more of a good effort rather than a great one, but I loved the way “Superpowers” made me think and feel—as well as being fun to read—and I hope readers give the novel a chance. It may just surprise you…


Angela/SciFiChick said...

I got an email from them saying they wanted to send this to me, but I never received it.
Oh well, I have plenty of others to read and review!

Robert said...

Angela, well hopefully you'll still get a copy! It's very entertaining and well worth a read :)

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Glad you enjoyed this; you communicated what you felt about it much better than I :)

I think I was too lavishing in the praise for this one, without explaining quite why it deserved it. Never mind. :D


Harry Markov said...

Robert, this is quite the lengthly review. How can you manage to express yourself so easily and at such length is beyond me, I can just watch the pros do it. Now I have this uncontrolable urge to buy this book and I can't. Blah!

Robert said...

No worries Chris :) That happens to me a lot. In fact, I'm never satisfied with my reviews. I always feel I'm leaving something out that I wanted to say ;)

Harry this one was easy for me because of the superhero connection :) It's a field that I think I'm knowledgeable in. Plus, it's good! I hope you get a chance to read it at some point...

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