Permuted Press, 2010, 274 pages
Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes. Vigilantes. Crusaders for justice, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place.
Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Despite the best efforts of the superheroes, the police, and the military, the hungry corpses rose up and overwhelmed the country. The population was decimated, heroes fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland like so many others.
Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions must overcome their differences and recover from their own scars to protect the thousands of survivors sheltered in their film studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. The heroes lead teams out to scavenge supplies, keep the peace within the walls of their home, and try to be the symbols the survivors so desperately need.
For while the ex-humans walk the streets night and day, they are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group has grown and gained power.
And they are not heroes.
If you have ever rolled a double-handful of six-sided dice and been told to "count BODY and STUN," Ex-Heroes will have a very familiar feel to it. Have you ever read a fantasy epic that was basically a novelization of the author's AD&D campaign? Ex-Heroes is basically a novelization of the author's Champions campaign. It's based on the rather cool if adolescent premise of a superhero world that's been engulfed by a zombie apocalypse. So it's now a couple of years post-apocalypse, and the surviving superheroes have set up an enclave in what used to be Paramount Studios, against which they defend the remaining human survivors in Los Angeles against the zombie hordes.
Like so many recent zombie novels, Ex-Heroes insists on calling them something other than zombies. In this case, they are "exes," as in "ex-humans." But of course superheroes sometimes get bitten and turned into zombies too, hence "Ex-Heroes." The zombies in this book are standard issue mindless shambling undead with a taste for brains, the only twist being the infectious angle used to explain them, and of course, the origin of "Patient Zero," which is the major Big Reveal in the book.
The book alternates between "Then" -- origin stories for each of the heroes, and what they were doing when the zombie apocalypse went down -- and "Now" -- their current status as defenders of the Mount, beneath the Hollywood hills. This also has the feel of an RPG campaign, in which you are basically given the introductory description of each character and details such as you'd find on a character sheet. Clines spent a lot of time working out the origins and powers and costumes of all his characters, and they would certainly be a fun group to game with, but none of them go any deeper than what you'd find on a single-page character sheet. You have The Mighty Dragon, who's the result of a "chemical accident" that gifted him with super-strength, semi-invulnerability, and the ability to breath fire. He is the "boy scout" of the group. Gorgon can drain strength from anyone who looks at his face, Cerberus is a mecha pilot, Regenerator can recover from any injury and heal others, Zzzap can turn into a floating ball of energy, and so on.
The most annoying character by far was Stealth, who is basically Batman if Batman were a Victoria's Secret Angel. Stealth is a super-genius who funded her university education by winning beauty pageants, and then, when she found out that no one would take her neurology research seriously because she's so gorgeous and therefore couldn't be a serious scientist, went into modeling and made enough money to buy her super-costume full of gadgets and stuff. Leaving aside all the other stupidities here (yes, the scientific fields are still rife with sexism, but peer-reviewed papers don't come with the author's photograph attached and conference submissions are usually reviewed blindly, so the idea that a beautiful supermodel could never get a serious academic paper published if it happened to be brilliant and correct just doesn't pass the reality test), Clines checks off every single cliche with Stealth. Since she is a supergenius, of course she talks like Data, without contractions or idioms, and being a supergenius who has actually lived in the world, she has no sense of humor, takes jokes literally, is virtually emotionless, and doesn't get pop culture references. I mean, please.
Also, Stealth doesn't care about sex or whether or not people find her attractive. Which is why she wears an outfit that is described as basically being a sort of skin-tight barely-there leather utility corset, plus a cloak. Okay, whatever. Very much in keeping with the genre, but Clines doesn't even have Stealth give some sort of hand-wavey BS justification for dressing like this, like "I use my pulchritudinous physique to distract male adversaries and thus gain a tactical advantage in hand-to-hand combat." At least that would be hanging a lampshade on it, but nah, she just dresses in nipple-clinging leather straps because.
The plot takes a while to arrive. Many pages are spent on origin stories and zombie-versus-superhero battles, but eventually it turns out there is a Big Bad elsewhere in Los Angeles who has gathered those survivors who haven't joined the Heroes in the Mount into a huge zombie-reinforced street gang, and now he wants to Take Over
While you may sense a certain failure to be impressed on my part in all of the above, I actually did enjoy this book. But that's because I frequently enjoy stupid things. The writing is not great, but it's not terrible either. The author makes a real effort to convey the pulse-pounding "BAM! BIFF! POW!" effects of comic book battles, complete with dramatic monologues and Epic Punches that blow the villain right through panel borders and all the way across the page. Efforts to represent the primarily visual medium of a comic book in prose form usually fall flat, which is why most superhero novels don't do this. But Peter Clines is unabashed, and does a fair job of writing superhero action scenes. Combined with the blood-and-guts of zombie massacres, it's a very violent and gory book that would make a good summer blockbuster. Peter Clines is probably crossing his fingers and praying that Michael Bay will read this book.
Verdict: Ex-Heroes is no more and no less than what it promises on the cover: zombies versus superheroes. If that idea sounds cool to you, then go ahead and read it. It's not brilliant or stunningly original or particularly well-written, but it's not bad either. It is perfectly passable fun, mindless entertainment. If you're a huge superhero nerd, you'll probably want to start "statting" the characters after you read it. I'm not going to hold this book up as a gem of the genre, but I enjoyed it enough that I'll probably read the sequel, Ex-Patriots.