Samhain Publishing, 2012, approx. 80,000 words.
Fight alone, die alone.
Blaze of Glory, Book 2
In the weeks since Jo “Surf” Tanis and her rough-and-tumble band of super-powered actors broke free of the government-sponsored superhero show, they’re all still dealing with the aftershock of adjusting to this thing called reality.
It doesn’t get much more real than a mission to dig survivors out of what’s left of Erie, PA, after a mysterious earthquake. A trembler that powerful is as out of place as Jo feels as the de-facto leader of the troupe. Not to mention the soul-shaking feelings she has for Hunter, a team member whose past as an Agency Guardian casts a heavy shadow over any possible relationship.
It seems one of the supers, an earth-warper named Ground Pounder, has gone rogue, using his freedom from the Agency’s brand of virtual slavery to put the “villain” back in supervillain. Failure to find him before any more innocent bystanders are hurt means the team could be back under the Agency’s thumb.
It’s a burden that doesn’t rest easy on Jo’s shoulders...especially when the man who’s invaded her heart is caught in the crossfire.
This was a review copy provided to me free of charge (and without obligation) by the author.
Rather like Jo Tanis and her team, "the Protectors," this series is kind of a B-lister: the books are good enough for what they do, though they certainly aren't going to shake the world. Sheryl Nantus's bio says she got her start in the fan fiction community, and her writing bears many signatures of a long-time fan ficcer. (Being a fan fiction writer myself, I do not mean that in a bad way.) Her writing is professionally polished, but there are an awful lot of dialog "beats" consisting of characters eating sandwiches, pausing to wipe mustard off their face, tossing things in the waste basket, etc. There is also a lot of word count devoted to Jo's lewd thoughts about Hunter (yes, his name is Hunter), the male lead with whom promised sexytimes are obviously being delayed until post-climax. (Hur hur...)
In the first book, Blaze of Glory, we were introduced to a world in which superhumans exist, and have somehow all been corralled by the government and forced to work as entertainers, fighting staged battles for the public. The Agency had planted bombs in their skulls to make sure everyone obeyed. Then came an alien invasion, and all the supers had to team up to fight it off just like a Mega-Spectacular Cross-Over Event. Following this, the Agency was defanged (supposedly) and the bombs were disarmed (supposedly) and Jo was left with a handful of former heroes and villains fighting for great justice from their not-so-secret bookstore headquarters in Canada.
In book two, some of those former villains have decided they'd like to try being villains for real. "Ground Pounder," who has the power to shake the earth at a touch, comes up with a comic book blackmail scheme, threatening to destroy cities if he's not paid an 11-figure fee. Jo (who as "Surf" has electromagnetic powers) and the Protectors, consisting of a super-leaping strongman; an animal controller whose major personality trait is being a cute gay boy; Hunter, a former Guardian (one of the Agency minions who monitored/controlled the supers) who also happens to be a super himself with luck powers; and the stock genius computer hacker back at the home base; have to stop him. If they don't, the Agency (which is now pretending to work with them, for the greater good of course) will take advantage of the public's fear and mistrust and put supers back under their thumb again.
The plot proceeds like every superhero team story: the Protectors meet the bad guys, find out the bad guys have unexpected allies, and get their butts kicked. They lick their wounds, draw up plans for the rematch, meet the bad guys again, and things go more or less not at all according to plan, but naturally the good guys win, kind of, and someone escapes to sequel again.
It is fun, and a bit of an improvement on book one. Being a slightly judgmental but non-discriminating reader of superhero novels, I think Heroes Without, Monsters Within (and its predecessor, Blaze of Glory) stands up as well as any in the genre, and is great fun for those who like that kind of thing. The writing is, as I say, a bit obviously small-publisher-with-fan-fiction-anteced
No, my real problems with the book are of the supremely nerdy variety, as one who has read superhero comic books since I was a wee fan, who has run superhero RPGs, and who has spent way more time than a serious adult should pondering questions like "How would the government take out the Hulk?" and "How exactly do star-spangled hot pants fit Wonder Woman's mission of bringing peace and justice to the World of Man?" and "Don't you think the FBI would have figured out everyone's secret identities by now?" There is something about a superhero story in novel, rather than comic book form, that makes me demand a level of realism I can more easily shrug off when it's a comic book.
So, the villains in Heroes Without, Monsters Within have pretty formidable powers, but they are not bullet-proof. Anyone who's not bullet-proof can be taken out by a sniper, and if these guys are threatening to destroy cities, you better believe the U.S. government will be deploying snipers, not a B-list team of Canadian superheroes. Likewise, the Agency is somehow going to round up all their former supers and enslave them again if Jo and her team don't succeed in taking down the bad guys? Umm, how exactly? I was bothered that the supers didn't give the finger to the Agency in the first book and go public with the fact that they'd basically been slaves working under literal threat of death, and I am still wondering this after book two.
Also, where are all the other supers worldwide? The thing about putting superheroes in the "real world" is that you can do so much with the concept, and while I realize that this is a book about Jo Tanis and her friends (with and without benefits), not the entire superhero world, I was disappointed that there isn't a single mention of anyone else, say, going into business as a super-bodyguard or starring on a reality show or filing a class action suit against the Agency or starting a religion or whatever. The book is so focused on the main characters that one gets the sense that they are the only supers in the world.
This and other plot holes don't really bear too much thinking about. If you want a "realistic" superhero story that ups the level of verisimilitude, this ain't it. However, the plot does hold up within the required suspension of disbelief, and the characters themselves behaved like believable people, and were more distinct and interesting than they were in the first book.
Verdict: Heroes Without, Monsters Within is nothing more than what it pretends to be, which is a light-hearted fan-friendly romp. For superhero fans, this is a fun book, particularly if you like a side of romance. If superheroes aren't your thing, then you may not be able to read past the essentially silly premise enough to enjoy the story. Sheryl Nantus is not wicked clever nor a lyrical wordsmith, but I find her to be a very readable author, and frankly better than a lot of writers with much bigger books from much bigger publishers.
Also by Sheryl Nantus: My review of Blaze of Glory.
My complete list of book reviews.