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Thursday, August 16, 2018

SPFBO: Empowered: Agent by Dale Ivan Smith (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order Empowered: Agent HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Dale Ivan Smith lives in Oregon where he works for the public library system. He loves writing and reading fantasy and science fiction, and also enjoys watching fantasy and SF movies and TV shows. Two large tiger tabby cat brothers rule his house.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The world says those with superpowers are either heroes or villains. But what if you're both? Mathilda Brandt isn't the angry, out-of-control teenager she was before she got out of jail. She's hungry for a chance at a normal life, but when a gang threatens her sisters, she has no choice but to use her illegal superpower to protect them. A secretive government agency gives her a choice: go back to prison for life, or infiltrate a notorious super-villain group in order to stop a psychotic Empowered. To save her city, her family, and herself, Mat must become the last thing she ever wanted to be again: a criminal.

CLASSIFICATION: Empowered is action-packed YA urban fantasy series with a healthy dose of superpowers and snarkiness.

FORMAT/INFO: Agent is 360 pages long divided over twenty numbered chapters. The narration is in the first person via Matthilda Brandt. This is the first volume of the Empowered series.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was self-published by the author. Cover art and design are by Yocla Design.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: As some of you already know, I was raised on a healthy, well-balanced diet of comic books and cartoon movies. I'm conditioned. I'm always eager to discover new stories about people with superpowers. The Fates (read - Mihir) wanted me to start my SPFBO judging adventure with a book about empowered human beings. I'm cool with that.

Agent focuses on Mat Brands (aka Vine), an angry young woman who wants nothing more than to take care of her family and lead a normal life. Not an easy task for the empowered. Even more complicated for empowered on parole. Despite her best efforts, she ends up with the choice to go back to prison or infiltrate a group of superpowered criminals.

Mat's superpowers aren't very impressive. She is classified as a Botanical Catalyst which is a fancy way of saying she can control plants. She can't stop hearing plants in her mind. She hears them sleep. She hears them suffer and feel when they need water. As someone who loves nature and walking barefoot, I think it's a fantastic power that can enhance the sense of unity with the world around us. On the other hand, speaking with plants and growing them, no matter how fast, isn't going to impress people wowed by real, kick-ass superpowers.

That's one of the reasons why Mat turned rogue in her youth. She was too lame to join the Hero Council and too different to socialise with regular people. Her desire to belong somewhere lead her to join The Renegades - a group of innocuous villains.

Yes, we've all seen it before in YA novels. An alienated and angsty teenager with few aces up her sleeve turns rogue but remains good at heart. It's not new, but it's done well. Mat is headstrong, snarky, and fearless. I enjoyed discovering the world through her eyes, although at times I felt irritated by her explosive behaviour. Behaviour that gets her into a lot of troubles.

The first-person narrative is tricky. The reader becomes aware of the events and characters of the story through the narrator's views and knowledge. First-person POV is an imperfect witness by definition, unable to fully see and comprehend events in their entirety as they unfurl. It can make the story engaging or boring. I liked Mat's voice, but I'm afraid many potential readers may dislike her because of her sometimes immature behaviour.

Secondary characters are somewhat one-dimensional. We have a good and a bad cop (who's actually good), loving grandmother, troubled siblings, insta-hate between female team members that soon turns into friendship, and psychotic villain. All of them feel underdeveloped and slightly flat.

Mat's siblings and their behaviour is unbelievable (especially sudden change of hearts). Mat's and Keisha insta-hate resulting in name calling grew old very fast and made for an unpleasant eye-rolling experience. Women in fiction need to stop calling each other bitches, especially if it's done million times.

The main villain, Mutter, should be terrifying. Instead, he's ridiculous. His powers are funky and dangerous; I'll give you that. Unfortunately, he's a one-dimensional bad guy who gets high on messing with people's head or pulling the wings off a fly. Call him Mr Psycho. Near the end of the book, Miss Co-Psycho joins Mr Psycho to wreak some havoc and increase the sense of danger. Very surprising. I'm still shocked.

The plot is easily accessible and easy to follow, if slightly predictable. The outcome was easy to guess from the beginning. Some clever twists and turns made up for it, though and allowed me to entertain a certain level of doubt. I saw the ending. I wasn't shocked, but I was entertained. And it's a good thing.

The writing is simple, neat and well edited. It serves the story and never gets in the way. There were two or three similes that feel a bit over the top in a juvenile way, like this one:
I felt my anger inside me, like a volcano about to explode
Overall, though, the writing is good and easy to follow. Superpowers are the heart of any superhero story. I'm satisfied with Smith's ideas and their displays. Mat's powers shouldn't be underestimated. Give her some vines and trees, and prepare for the mayhem. There's a speedster who wasn't fast enough, a gal controlling metal and a guy controlling air currents. These powers aren't new, but I enjoyed them anyway. Well done.

CONCLUSION: In the end, I liked this book. It's not perfect. It has some flaws, weak characterization being the main one. On the other hand, the story engaged and entertained me. I felt motivated to turn the pages, even when what I saw in my mind's eye was silly. The pacing is excellent, and some action scenes impressed me with vivid imagery. So, despite numerous eye-rolling moments, I plan to continue with the series. It's a great palate cleanser.

Additionally, take into account I'm slowly but inevitably rolling towards my forties. I'm pretty sure that younger audience will be able to identify with Mat in a more intimate way than I.



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