Think of superheroes and the first thing that comes to mind is comics, a medium that feels like the right, natural environment for these super-powered humans, or aliens as the case may be, and their super-powered adventures. If not comics, then the screen – big or small. Naturally, because visual mediums make the best home for superhero stories given their bright costumes, diabolical supervillains and their plans for world domination and mostly because it’s all driven by action scenes and big battles. The last place you’d expect superheroes to come alive is within the pages of a novel, and it is this that is the subject of this week’s edition of New Worlds Weekly, because superhero novels do exist. While prose fiction may feel like the wrong choice to tell an engaging – and entertaining – superhero story, there are nonetheless books that do exactly the same: taking all the things we are familiar with about superheroes and adding to them, stretching them in different directions, making the reader look at superheroes differently. Thus proving once and for all that a good superhero story can exist outside of comics and screens. Without further ado, here, then, are just five such books about people with superpowers:
Turbulence – Samit Basu
‘Superman’ exists and he’s Indian. And so do a whole host of meta-humans with powers that range from the familiar to the funny, from the odd to the frightening. The source of their various powers is mysterious, and but one thing is certain: all passengers of British Airways Flight 403, who boarded the plane as ordinary humans in London, landed in India with super-powers – with each person’s power a manifestation of their innermost desires. An Indian Air Force pilot can now fly. An aspiring Bollywood actress now possesses infinite charisma. A housewife who wished if she could undo some of her life choices can now live out multiple lives by ‘splitting into’ multiple bodies. In Samit Basu’s action-packed and intrigue-filled Turbulence, these are just the nice ones; there is a whole host of other super-powered beings putting their new-found powers to not-so-nice uses – with at least one of them well on his way to world domination by eliminating others like him. Factions form, the supers take sides and battle with each other, with one of them – a meta-human – able to control all networks, including the internet, and lead a rag-tag team of people who think like him against the malicious ones. Part funny, part deconstruction of superhero tropes, part social commentary and a satirical take on 21st century India – and all parts enjoyable – Turbulence at the end of the day is a brilliant exploration of two very human questions: How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? What would you do if you were given the power to change the world?
Vicious – V.E. Schwab
Two college students, friends and roommates, Victor and Eliot, over the course of their research come to realise that under the right conditions, superhuman abilities can be created, and people can be given superpowers. They call them EOs: ExtraOrdinary people. No one believes them, until the two unlock the secret to become EO themselves, resulting in the death of innocent people. Eli disappears and Victor is sent to jail. Over the next 10 years, Victor learns to hone his powers, while Eli uses his to eliminate other humans with superpowers, with the help of a mind-controlling EO. A jailbreak later, Victor finds himself battling Eli in his desire for vengeance. Each of these ex-friends thinks that his is the right path, each thinking that he is the superhero while the other is the supervillain as their fight escalates, sweeping up everyone else in their wake. A well-paced revenge thriller that’s brilliantly plotted and structured, Vicious takes a long hard look at the various shades of good and evil, and will change the way you look at superheroes with its keen exploration of the superhero mythos.
Soon I Will Be Invincible – Austin Grossman
Set in a world where superheroes have been around since WW2, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible is part-tribute, part-parody of the Marvel and DC universes, written by someone who is clearly a super-fan of comics and knows his superheroes. The novel follows two chief characters through whose eyes we see their world and follow the story: Fatale, a female cyborg recruited as the newest member of a superhero group, the Champions, who are searching for Earth’s biggest superhero, CoreFire, who has disappeared; and Dr. Impossible, a supervillain with superhuman strength, genius-level intellect and Malign Hypercognition Disorder attempting to take over the world for the thirteenth time, this time with a fool-proof plan that involves ‘a mirror, a book, a doll, and a jewel’. Stuffed with enough comic-book references to make any fan happy, readers will recognise their favourite superheroes, villains and side-kicks in the pages of this cleverly written and fun-to-read novel, and see why it’s often the supervillains that are more interesting.
The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar
Variously described as the “X-Men written by John le Carré” and like “Watchmen on crack”, Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century takes more of its cues from politics, serious books and spy thrillers than it does from superhero comics. And not only does it succeed in meshing these influences seamlessly together, it also ends up studying the reasons behind – and the relevance and role of – ‘superheroes’ in our lives. Unlike in his alternate history novel, the World Fantasy Award-winning Osama, the world events in The Violent Century are the same – everything we know has happened, more or less: only, with added superheroes. Ubermenschen, people with special powers – called The Changed – who were turned into such as a result of an experiment of a German scientist in the 1930s. Each country has its own set of immortal superheroes: The American ones are loud, brash and a caricature of the ones we know, the German superheroes follow the Third Reich, while the Soviet ones grapple with alcoholism. The British superheroes, meanwhile, are more discreet and work undercover. The main protagonists of the book are two such English Ubermenschen, Oblivion and Fogg, once-partners who helped defend the British Empire. What starts as an assignment given by the Retirement Bureau to Oblivion to bring in Fogg kicks off a wild tour of the history of the 20th century as the two recount their experiences. Grim, melancholy and brilliantly written, The Violent Century – filled with clever cameos and replete with keen observations on humanity and heroes – is not an easy read. Yet, it is a book that rewards the reader for sticking with it till the end.
Steelheart – Brandon Sanderson
Ten years ago, an event dubbed the Calamity gave a few ordinary people extraordinary powers. But not all people with powers become heroes. Power corrupts, and so these people – known as Epics – abuse their power to rule over people, replacing governments. One such is Steelheart, an Epic more powerful than the others and who has created his own society that he runs with the help of other Epics. No one dares to go against the Epics, except for one shadowy organisation called the Reckoners whose stated mission is to assassinate Epics. The protagonist of the tale is David, a boy who was orphaned when Steelheart killed his father and now wants revenge against the Epic and, after running into the Reckoners, falls in with them – ultimately convincing them to try to kill Steelheart. A fast-action packed story by the author of acclaimed fantasy series such as Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive, Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is filled with twists and turns that lead to a memorable climax, and is a nice, original take on ‘superheroes’.
So, there you go. Books about superheroes you can enjoy even if you don’t read comics. Of course, there are more but those are for another day, another column. Until then, happy reading; live long and prosper!
Lead Image: Cover of the Indian limited edition hardcover of Turbulence by Samit Basu. Art by Sarnath Banerjee and Bani Abidi.
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