Thursday, November 8, 2012
Sheep Book Review: Don't Be a Hero, by Chris Strange
Some of my readers may remember that earlier this year I read Chris Strange's debut novel, The Man Who Crossed Worlds, and I ended up really enjoying its pulp-noir urban fantasy feel. Well, recently Chris was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of his next novel, Don't Be a Hero. While it has nothing to do with the Miles Franco series, I still found it highly enjoyable and I would recommend it to adult fans of superheroes everywhere. (Trust me, this book is not for kids.)
If I were to summarize Don't Be a Hero, I would be forced to admit it bears more than a passing resemblance to Watchmen by Alan Moore, just set in New Zealand. Basically, in the mid twentieth century an explosion at Los Alamos resulted in Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and seven other people being exposed to radiation. Instead of dying from this exposure, Dr. Oppenheimer and his associates in typical Silver Age fashion developed superpowers and became a hero team known as the Manhattan Eight, and together they helped the allies defeat the Nazis and win World War II. The presence of the Manhattan Eight, however, did not stop the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan and there were additional atomic bombings in places like Warsaw, Poland and Auckland, New Zealand. Of the survivors of such bombing, a number of people developed superpowers like the Manhattan Eight and became metahumans. Many went on to form their own crime-fighting teams or use their powers for the benefit of humanity.
As bright as the future seemed for the metahumans, it quickly turned out to be too good to be true. Along with the 100% chance of developing cancer as a result of their exposure to radiation, public opinion turned against the metahumans in the early 1960's and forced heroes everywhere to hang up the cape. Now most metahumans live in segregated ghettos as second class citizens and are mistrusted by the majority of the population. However, when a supervillain called Quanta emerges and starts putting a dangerous plan into action, only retiring superheroes Spook and the Carpenter can hope to stop him in time.
As I mentioned, this book has a lot of similar elements to Watchmen, such as a public mistrust of superheroes and legislation curtailing their activities. Don't Be a Hero is different, however, in two very important respects. The first is the fact that the world has to adapt to the existence of people with honest-to-god superpowers. While I really disagreed with the world's decision to tightly regulate metahumans and equip all of them with kill-switches as a safety feature, I at least understand their rationale for going to such extreme measures. The other big difference between Don't Be a Hero and Watchmen is that Watchmen is really analyzing the type of personality it would take to choose to dress up in a costume and go fight crime. Don't Be a Hero, however, really focuses on what it takes to become a superhero, beyond having some really nifty powers. If you enjoyed Watchmen, then you'll definitely enjoy this similar yet unique approach to superheroes.
I also had a few things in specific that I really liked about Don't Be a Hero, the first being one of our main characters, Niobe (aka Spook). To be perfectly honest, I hate that I'm giving credit for the fact that Chris wrote in a well-developed female character who also happened to be a lesbian. It's the twenty-first century, having characters like that really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. That being said, there is an unfortunate trend in fiction today to depict women certain ways in fiction and lesbians are frequently sources of fanservice rather than developed characters. However, in Don't Be a Hero I never felt like the fact that Niobe was a woman, and a homosexual woman at that, was ever a big deal. Her relationship with her girlfriend, Gabby, came across to me as realistic, adult, romantic relationship and I didn't feel like it existed purely as fanservice to the readers. Was there a little fanservice in there? Yeah, but their relationship had depth beyond that. So I ended up really appreciating Chris's writing in that regard.
The other thing I really liked about this book was Chris's inclusion of his native New Zealand as a setting in the novel. It's more of a personal pleasure, but I always appreciate it when an author sneaks in a little bit about their home area into the novel and leaves a distinct geographic fingerprint. Plus it was a refreshing change of pace to see superheroes running around in Auckland, New Zealand, instead of New York City where they seem to always end up for some reason. I also liked Chris slipping native Maori culture into the narrative as well, something you just probably wouldn't get in New York City. Again, this is my own personal preference, but a refreshing change of pace from superheroes in the Big Apple.
If you're a fan of superheroes and superhero deconstructions, I definitely would recommend checking out Don't Be a Hero. I also recommend this book because I greatly enjoy Chris Strange's work and it's been an honor to know him since his first novel. (Thanks for the advance copy, Chris! And seriously, watch out for them sheep on your island!)