Note: This "book" is currently available only as a free podcast or audiobook. However, a hardcover version from Baen is due out next year.
Superheroes. Either you love 'em or you think they're the dumbest thing ever. Kind of like vampire romances. Guess which category I fall into? (You can guess what I think of vampire romances, too. Go ahead, guess.)
I've never read any of Mercedes Lackey's books, so I listened to The Secret World Chronicle with interest but without expecting much.
A novelized series about superheroes in an original (i.e., not based on an existing comic book universe) world has been done before, of course. It was called Wild Cards, a shared universe anthology edited by George R. R. Martin. It was very good and quite popular, and I understand there's a new trilogy being published now, but I'm not sure if I want to get invested in a new series where you can be pretty sure that all the characters you love best will probably wind up being raped and tortured to death, if Martin's past history is any indication.
While The Secret World Chronicle is not as graphic as Wild Cards was, there is an awful lot of bloodshed in this first volume. You can't really mourn for any of the characters, though, since you barely get to know any of them before they get slaughtered.
The problem with creating your very own superhero world is not that superheroes defy the laws of physics in ways that make Star Wars look like hard SF; anyone who's a fan of the genre has already agreed to suspend their disbelief as far as it needs to go. The problem is that a superhero story isn't just about someone with weird powers; it's about a world in which there are people with weird powers, and unlike your typical urban fantasy/esper thriller/secret alien invasion story, the whole world knows about these people. That means to make your story credible, there has to be a history to account for superheroes. You have to make up your own superhero mythology. Wild Cards did this over the course of many volumes, starting with some excellent writing in the first few.
The Secret World Chronicle doesn't give an explanation for where metahumans came from; as in comic books, they just did, and they've been around at least since World War II. There are a mix of mutants, magic users, divine beings, and guys in powered armor. Lackey and Libbey have created a pretty entertaining world, but there's just nothing terribly interesting or original about it. Superheroes exist. They fight supervillains. Yay, superheroes. We get a whole bunch of characters in this first volume, mostly American, but with one Russian team (and a cameo by Prime Minister Putin, who is not a metahuman, fortunately), who are interesting enough but none of them got enough of a spotlight for me to have any favorites.
And then suddenly: Nazis!
Yes, the entire world is invaded by Nazis in nine-foot tall super-high-tech armored suits, powerful enough to take on superheroes and win. Most of the action happens in Atlanta, which is the main headquarters for American superheroes for some reason, but all over the world armored Nazi troops appear, mow people down by the hundreds, kill lots of metahumans, and when they are eventually beaten back, they are picked up by flying saucers and escape.
Remember what I said about suspending disbelief?
So, the implication is that these Nazis aren't really Nazis, or if they are, they're Nazis who've somehow been removed from their original time and place and given alien technology and then sent back to Earth to wage war against mankind. Or something like that. Then we find out that they've really been sent by the "Thule Society," but we don't really learn anything about it. That's for Book Two, I guess. (Books Two and Three are complete and also available for free at the above links.)
I will probably listen to the next two volumes at some point, but I must admit that although I thought Book One was entertaining, I just wasn't drawn into it enough to care about any particular character or find out where the Thule Society came from or if there's going to be a cameo by President Obama in Book Two.
Verdict: If you're a comic book fan, and especially if you liked Wild Cards, this is worth a listen, but if you're not into superheroes, you can probably give it a pass.