Samhain Publishing, 2010, Approximately 74,000 words
Saving the world is easy for a superhero—unless you’re a fraud.
Jo Tanis is a superhero, fighting evil on the city streets, using her ability to feed off electromagnetic energy and fire off charges—and it’s all just a show. The Agency captures her and others like her when their powers begin to manifest, pitting them against each other in staged, gladiatorial fights. An explosive implant on the back of her neck assures she’ll keep right on smiling for the camera and beating up the bad guys.
When Earth comes under attack, suddenly the show becomes deadly real. Unable to deal with a real alien, the “supers” are falling in droves. Millions of innocent civilians are going to die…unless Jo can cobble together a team from among the fake heroes and villains the Agency enslaved. Including Hunter, who not only promises to show her how to deactivate the implants, but seems to know more than he should about how the mysterious Agency operates.
Forcing a rag-tag bunch of former enemies to work together is the least of Jo’s problems. The trick is determining if Hunter is friend or foe—and becoming the hero everyone thought she was before the world is destroyed for real.
I have been going through a bit of a superhero binge lately. In theory, superheroes shouldn't need to be confined to comic books and movies. On the one hand, the basic premise behind superheroes is childish fantasy. On the other hand, if you boil them down to their essential tropes, superhero stories are no different than Greek myths (and similar pantheons): larger-than-life epics about superpowered beings who often behave badly. And yet, even the best superhero novels don't quite seem to work for me, and I'm trying to figure out why. My "gold standard" for great superhero fiction is still the early Wild Cards series, before George R. R. Martin did the GRRM thing and said "gotcha, chump!" to anyone who became invested in the characters.
Anyway, Blaze of Glory is a superhero offering from small independent publisher Samhain Publishing, which is better known for romance and
Blaze of Glory gives us real supers in an enormously fake environment: while the public sees heroes and villains battling it out on TV and roots for their favorites, the reality is that every last super on Earth has been abducted by a mysterious government agency and forced to work as a "superhero" or "supervillain" by putting on a good (and entirely staged) show. Every super is accompanied by a "Guardian" who wears an unbreakable bracelet, and with the press of a button, a super's Guardian can activate a bomb surgically implanted in each super's head and kill them.
This sounds like a dystopian scenario, and I was rather disappointed that the book never really explored what a horrible abuse of power this was. Oh sure, the supers are justifiably resentful about being abducted and enslaved and forced to be performing monkeys for the public under threat of death, but I didn't think any of them ever showed truly appropriate levels of rage or vengefulness, nor was there an accounting for the fact that the government has been doing this. (In fact, every government has been doing this, another fact that had trouble balancing on my suspension of disbelief.)
What happens is that an alien invasion fleet arrives, parks ships over every major city on Earth, and very much in keeping with comic book tradition, disgorges handsome super-powered aliens who demand that the supers come and fight them. Initially, the supers get their asses kicked, and pretty soon all the A-listers are dead, leaving second and third stringers like Jo Tanis, aka "Surf," as the only survivors.
Jo can absorb electromagnetic energy. She's a capacitor who can discharge it as lightning bolts, and she can also ride electromagnetic waves and carry other people with her. She's potent but not exactly Avengers material, but with the top guys down and the Agency seemingly crippled and incommunicado, she decides to assemble any other supers she can find and save the world.
Her team consists of a geriatric old lady who can stun people with mind blasts (I am starting to think there is a geriatric old lady rule in superhero fiction), a former "villain" known as Meltdown who can burn things with a touch and is mostly a source of porn jokes and toilet humor, the token gay character, a kid who talks to animals (the fact that he's gay and was lovers with his (dead) Guardian is mentioned in passing, and seems to serve no purpose other than HEY HERE IS A GAY CHARACTER YAY), another ex-Guardian who will step into the
This was not a bad book: in fact, I liked it more than I liked most of the other superhero novels I've read lately. It is fast-paced and full of action, with superhero battles and superheroes vs. invading aliens and a bit of romance if that is your thing. Apparently there is a sequel due out next year which looks like it's going to be more romance-heavy. Jo is the most fleshed-out character in the book, and fills the heroine role quite adequately: she's brave and basically good, but not without fear and self-doubt. She thinks out what she's going to do, but mostly she just takes whatever action she thinks needs to be done.
The worldbuilding was a bit skimpier than the character development. "The Agency" is a one-note gimmick that, as I mentioned, does not seem plausible as an international conspiracy. There is an explanation of sorts offered halfway through the book, but I'd like to see more fallout, and more expansion on the idea of supers and where they came from, in the next book, if I decide to read it.
The aliens... well, they were comic book aliens. Their culture and their motivations, and the way they go from unstoppable supermen when one of them is taking on an entire team of supers to mooks when dozens of them are taking on a handful of supers (seriously, they are distracted by seagulls?) was like something right out of an old issue of Green Lantern.
Verdict: As superhero novels go, Blaze of Glory is fun and a quick ride, without being terribly deep or requiring you to invest yourself in the world or the characters at all. It's about middle-of-the-pack relative to other novels in the genre I have read, but Jo "Surf" Tanis is one of the better heroes, true to the heroic genre without being a four-color cardboard cutout. If you really like it, there is a sequel coming soon.