Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

One-line summary: A superhero novel with its heart in the right place, but it's a weak and outdated tribute to the genre.


Goodreads: Average: 3.64. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.0. Mode: 4.5 stars.

Doctor Impossible—evil genius, diabolical scientist, wannabe world dominator—languishes in a federal detention facility. He's lost his freedom, his girlfriend, and his hidden island fortress.

Over the years he's tried to take over the world in every way imaginable: doomsday devices of all varieties (nuclear, thermonuclear, nanotechnological) and mass mind control. He's traveled backwards in time to change history, forward in time to escape it. He's commanded robot armies, insect armies, and dinosaur armies. Fungus army. Army of fish. Of rodents. Alien invasions. All failures. But not this time. This time it’s going to be different...

Fatale is a rookie superhero on her first day with the Champions, the world's most famous superteam. She's a patchwork woman of skin and chrome, a gleaming technological marvel built to be the next generation of warfare. Filling the void left by a slain former member, we watch as Fatale joins a team struggling with a damaged past, having to come together in the face of unthinkable evil.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is a thrilling first novel; a fantastical adventure that gives new meaning to the notions of power, glory, responsibility, and (of course) good and evil.

Oh, I wanted to love this book, I really did. I was such a superhero fanboy back in the day. I still have boxes and boxes of mylar-bagged comic books in a storage space somewhere. I used to play Villains & Vigilantes and Champions.

I admit, though, my expectations for this book were not high. Perhaps a little unfairly, because Austin Grossman is the brother of Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, a mean-spirited deconstruction of children's fantasy literature that pretends to pay homage to the genre while mocking those who love it. I feared that Soon I Will Be Invincible would do the same thing to superheroes.

It doesn't -- Austin Grossman really does know and love the genre, and it shows. Unfortunately, his fanboyism hurts his book in the other direction -- because he's paying such blatant tribute to every superhero trope there is, it's not a fresh new take on superheroes, it's just the author taking delight in being able to create his own superhero world, with many sly, knowing winks.

The world of the Champions and Dr. Impossible is straight out of comic books -- while it's written as straight sci-fi, there is no attempt to justify the coexistence of mutants, alien princesses, time traveling cyborg warriors from the 35th century, sorcerers from alternate dimensions, and genetically engineered talking housepets, all in a world that somehow manages to still look mostly like ours.

Most of the main characters are very obvious copies of comic book icons. Corefire is Superman, Black Wolf is Batman, Damsel is Wonder Woman, Dr. Impossible is Lex Luthor/Dr. Doom, etc. The chapters alternate between the first-person perspectives of Dr. Impossible, a megalomaniac super-genius who wants to conquer the world for no particular reason and who really never shows much evidence of his "genius" other than being able to create robot armies and orbital death rays and such at will, and Fatale, an amnesiac cyborg who is the newest member of the reformed Champions. As the story starts, Corefire, the most powerful superhero in the world, has gone missing, Dr. Impossible has just escaped, and so the Champions assemble to hunt for both. In the course of the story, we of course find out that every character has his or her secrets, and their origins are entangled in various fairly predictable ways.

It's a competently-written story, but the problem is, we don't know any of these characters. A novel about Batman or the Avengers would at least get fans of Batman or the Avengers invested in it. Grossman got to make up his very own superhero universe for Soon I Will Be Invincible, but since it's a universe that doesn't exist anywhere else, he has to do a lot of worldbuilding while also introducing a large cast of characters and getting us into the plot. By the end, it's all just a bunch of "BAM! POW!" with a handful of clever ideas.

The thing is, we've already seen superheroes given a "grown-up" treatment. The Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns appeared in 1986. The first book in George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards series was published in 1987. These introduced original superhero mythologies (Dark Knight, not so much, but certainly it gave a new treatment to established characters) but also told fantastic stories, created characters readers cared about (of course, in Wild Cards, this meant that, GRRM-style, you'd usually see the characters you cared most about eventually die in a bloodbath), and built a compelling, believable world. George R. R. Martin, Frank Miller, and Alan Moore reinvented the genre; Austin Grossman barely makes a mark on it.

This is not a bad book, but it falls far short of greatness. If you like superhero stories, you'll probably find it entertaining enough, but otherwise, I'd give it a pass. Soon I Will Be Invincible is not quite dark and cynical enough to be edgy, and not quite juvenile enough to be charming. It's an affectionate but forgettable rewrite of familiar myths. I would probably read a sequel, but only for comfort reading.

Verdict: This is meant to be a superhero novel for grown-ups, but I would have enjoyed it a lot more as a teenager. It's entertaining enough if you don't find superheroes too silly to take seriously in the first place, but for a veteran comics fan it brings nothing new to the table, especially when you aren't already invested in the world.

This was a nice light read before I dive into something more substantial, and speaking of which, let me take the opportunity again to pimp books1001. I have 49 signups already, but we need many more if we're going to read and review 1001 books by the end of 2011! Come join us -- the challenge starts on January 1.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, superheroes

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