Superhero Novels: The Best of 2017 and a Peek at 2018

IronFistMistyKnight KISSEvery year we look forward to compiling our Top 5 list of superhero novels. It’s a great way to revisit all the books we’ve read during the past 12 months, and it helps put everything in perspective. Seeing how the genre changes year by year is endlessly fascinating. Better writers are coming to the genre, and readers are becoming more discriminating too. The future’s so bright we’ve got to wear Captain Cold-like shades when we sit down to read. Below is our list of the five best superhero prose novels of 2017.

1) A Little More Human by Fiona Maazel. The hero of Fiona Maazel’s quirky novel is a low level telepath. But just because he has the ability to read minds doesn’t mean he has any kind of mental acuity. Maazel takes her super inadequate hero on a journey that ends with a shit storm of bad luck and bad choices. Tragic and funny, A Little More Human is our favorite book of 2017.

2) Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro. According to Albert Einstein, events that happen in the universe can be interpreted in many different ways. Little did he know that his theory of relativity would someday inspire Terri Favro to write a wild and crazy superhero novel. Like the ballad of Norin Radd and Shalla-Bal, Sputnik’s Children is a sad and cosmic love story that spans the space-time continuum.

3) The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente and Annie Wu. Valente takes aim at a regrettable genre trope that’s dogged superhero fiction for years. Her pointed attack, however, results in one of the best (and funniest) books of the year. The Refrigerator Monologues is a love letter to superhero comic books written with a poison ivy pen.

4) Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds. It’s doubtful that award-winning and best-selling author Jason Reynolds will ever pen another superhero novel. That’s too bad. We’d like to see him tackle a Virgil Hawkins (Static) novel, or something involving sisters Anissa and Jennifer Pierce (Thunder and Lightning). He’s a guy who writes intelligently and poetically about adolescence, and he brings his literary gifts to this amazing Spider-Man book.

5) Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo. As alternative origin stories go, Bardugo’s retcon of Wonder Woman is pretty darn good. She fiddles around with the details of Diana’s backstory, but she nails her enduring charm in a highly compelling way. As we all know, 2017 was a big year for Wonder Woman. The movie was terrific and so is this novel. Congratulations to Bardugo for riding the wave.

Over all, 2017 was a great year for superhero prose fiction. Now let’s take a look at some of the novels forthcoming in 2018. Below is a partial list of books that have already been added to our “to read” list.

Archenemies by Marissa Meyer. Arrow: Fatal Legacies by James R. Tuck and Marc Guggenheim. Batman: The Court of Owls by Greg Cox. Batman: The Killing Joke by Christa Faust and Gary Phillips. Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu. Black Panther: The Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith. Bone Music by Christopher Rice. Bug Girl: Fury on the Dance Floor by Benjamin Harper and Sarah Hines Stephens. Bumblebee at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee. Captain Superlative by J.S. Puller. Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas. Don’t Cosplay with My Heart by Cecil Castellucci. The Flash: Climate Changeling by Richard Knaak. The Flash: Johnny Quick by Barry Lyga. Good Guys by Steven Brust. Gotham: City of Monsters by Jason Starr. Harley Quinn: Mad Love by Pat Cadigan. Harley Quinn at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee. Heroine’s Journey by Sarah Kuhn. Kid Normal by Greg James, Chris Smith, and Erica Salcedo. Legacy of Light by Sarah Raughley. Low Chicago: A Wild Cards Novel edited by George R.R. Martin. My So-Called Superpowers by Heather Nuhfer and Simini Blocker. Nexus by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti. Not Your Backup by C.B. Lee. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule. The Point by John Dixon. The Super Ladies by Susan Petrone. Runaways: An Original Novel by Christopher Golden. Serpent in the Heather by Kay Kenyon. Shetani Zeru Bryan: New Praetorians 2 by R.K. Syrus. The Silver Hood by Justin Richman. Supergirl: Curse of the Ancients by Jo Whittemore. The Supervillain and Me by Danielle Banas. Texas Hold ‘Em: A Wild Cards Novel edited by George R.R. Martin. They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded by James Alan Gardner. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale. Vengeful by V.E. Schwab.

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Super Girl

Supergirl AtlantisA recent singularity event in National City creates a batch of new superhumans in author Jo Whittemore’s delightfully wacky Supergirl novel. Among others, there’s a meteorologist who can now control weather, a bodybuilder who can levitate objects (get it?), and a film student who can animate any object she touches.

Most people are happy about the unexpected turn of events, especially James Olsen. After being an ineffectual wingman to both Superman and Supergirl for so long, he’s thrilled to acquire metahuman powers of his own. Not only can the photographer see in the dark, but he can also see through objects, and he can even see behind his head. All things considered, having super eyeball vision is a dream come true for Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen.

But not everybody is happy about the explosion of new superheroes in National City. Supergirl for one. The “supercitizens” didn’t know what they were doing. And most of them were overwhelmed by their powers. “They have no clue,” says Supergirl in a hastily recorded public announcement. “They’re as much a danger to themselves as they are to everyone around them.”

Unbeknownst to Supergirl and the rest of her colleagues at the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, the influx of supercitizens is directly linked to a mysterious visitor from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. It takes a while for the CW crew (including Olsen, J’onn J’onzz, Alex Danvers, Winn Schott, and Mon-El) to figure things out. But when they do, the ensuing “superbattle” is like an 80-Page Giant edition featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes.

And just like the TV show, Supergirl wins the day with a combination of superpowers and super charm. That’s why we love her so much. “You are more than just your powers, Kara,” says her boyfriend Mon-El. “You have a kind heart and a determined spirit and a clever mind. Even if you were human, you would still be a super girl.”

Over all, Whittemore does a great job of putting our favorite super girl in a non-ending string of funny and awkward moments. Many of them include unexpected nods to the DC extended universe.

For example, when a handful of lions and tigers escape the National City Zoo, Supergirl figures out a humane way to solve the crisis (“Punching a cat seems wrong,” she says with a shrug). Later, when Winn starts calling her Catwoman as a goof, she doesn’t seem to mind (maybe because Kara Zor-El and Selina Kyle were buddies at Super Hero High School).

Whittemore saves her biggest surprise for the end (no spoilers from us!), but our favorite cameo happens about midway through the book. On page 150, Kara visits the newsroom of the National City Tribune and interrupts Vicki Vale’s going-away party. “Oh, right!” she says in her best ditzy Melissa Benoist impersonation. “You’re leaving us for that other newspaper. We’ll miss you.”

“Between you and me,” says Vale in a conspiratorial whisper, “I have to get out of here. National City is driving me batty.” The two reporters chat amiably for a few moments before Kara gives her coworker a big super squeeze. “Have fun in your new job at the Gotham Gazette,” she says with a cheery cluelessness, “and stay out of trouble.”

[Supergirl: Age of Atlantis / By Jo Whittemore / First Printing: November 2017 / ISBN: 9781419728143]

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All You Need Is Love

RenegadesThere were 400 superheroes affiliated with the Renegades, Gatlon City’s premier justice league. Led by a five-member council, the Renegades were former vigilantes who took control of their city and established a sensible legislative purview.

Like most superheroes, the Renegades were an earnest bunch who were arguably doing the best they could. They dutifully passed laws to protect their constituencies and provided infrastructure support whenever possible.

But just because they could turn invisible or control water didn’t mean they had any governing skills. Nine years ago, the Renegades saved Gatlon City from the scourge of villainy. But the government they installed was inadequate. It’s hard to represent your citizenry when you’re lounging comfortably at the top of an 82-story skyscraper. Talk about being disconnected from reality.

The whole thing was a failed social experiment, according to Nova Artino, a spy for the resistance and a notorious supervillain named Nightmare. “The city was ruled by dictators who had no idea what they were doing.”

Artino’s solution was anarchy. She was all about personal freedom, personal responsibility; about taking care of yourself and your own concerns, rather than expecting anyone to take care of you. She wanted to do away with oppression and regulations that only served a small group of (super) people.

And that, more or less, was the big messy conflict at the center of Marissa Meyer’s latest novel. What was better, she mused, freedom of choice or freedom from choice? Nova and her friends embraced the upside of anarchy, and the Renegades stubbornly upheld their brand of authoritative social control.

But who was right? It’s the sort of argument freshman philosophy students have been debating for years. And certainly it’s been a pressing question in every YA dystopian novel published in the past decade. Meyers, to her credit, allows her superheroes to hash it out properly on the page.

Sixteen-year-old Nova was raised by Ace Anarchy (né Alec Artino), her rabblerousing uncle. Predictably she’s loyal to him throughout the book and uses her sleep-inducing abilities for maximum mischief. But things get complicated for her when she meets a cute Renegade scout named Adrian Everhart with powers like Harold and his purple crayon.

No matter what their personal allegiances may be, the two teenagers can’t resist the thrall of their prickly hormones. As you’d expect, their budding Romeo and Juliet-like romance threatens to crack Gatlon City wide open like a raw egg. Freedom of choice? Freedom from choice? The question is moot. Love trumps politics and philosophical dissonance every time.

[Renegades / By Marissa Meyer / First Printing: November 2017 / ISBN: 9781250044662]

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Wonder Woman: Peacemaker

WarbringerThe title of Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman novel is tantalizingly provocative. It implies that Princess Diana of Themyscira is being re-imagined as some kind of harbinger of war.

But that’s not the case. Wonder Woman isn’t a “Warbringer” at all. Always and evermore she remains a peacemaker. The title of the book is simply an ambiguous (but catchy) declaration.

There’s no ambiguity once you start reading the book, however. Right off the bat, Diana meets a teenager named Alia Keralis who is a direct descendant of Helen of Sparta. It is Alia, not Diana, who is the Warbringer (note the capitalization). She’s the one who carries the death of the world. “With each breath she takes,” says an Amazon oracle, “she takes us closer to Armageddon.”

In this origin story, there is no Steve Trevor. Alia is the person who inspires Diana to leave Themyscira and begin her hero’s journey. But Trevor isn’t completely missing from the narrative. There’s a nod to his fate during a tour of the island’s armory. On display is a pilot’s jumpsuit riddled with bullet holes that looks like it came from the twenties. In Bardugo’s novel, Trevor didn’t live long enough to cause a blip on William Marston’s radar.

Leaving the island, Diana makes her way to New York where she tries to help Alia stop the ongoing cycle of war. Despite the serious nature of her task, she manages to have a few LOL moments in the big city. She doesn’t eat an ice-cream cone, but she rides the subway (always an interesting adventure for tourists). And she does a little shopping to pick up necessities like Doritos and gummy bears. During her shopping spree, she tucks her magic lasso in a plastic Duane Reade bag.

Forgoing the pleasures of NY, Diana must escort her charge to Greece before the start of the Athenian New Year. If Alia takes a dip in the spring water of Therapne (the resting place of Helen) the cycle of Warbringers will be broken. To complicate matters further, the pair is under attack by disparate factions. Some people want to kill Alia to prevent future wars. And others want to keep her alive in order to facilitate their shady warmongering agenda.

Throughout, Diana is totally committed to Alia. “Sister in battle,” she tells her at one point. “I am shield and blade to you.” But she is also cognizant of her own destiny. She is the only one of her Amazon sisters who hasn’t been tested on the battlefield. She is 16 years old in this novel and she hungers for a chance to prove herself beyond Themyscira track and field events. “What’s my story?” she asks more than once.

The answer to her question comes late in the novel. The world needed a champion, and Diana needed a chance to learn what she was capable of. She broke the curse of the Warbringer, but her story wasn’t over. It had just begun. “She did not know what the future held, only that the world – full of danger, and challenge, and wonder – was waiting to be discovered.”

[Wonder Woman: Warbringer / By Leigh Bardugo / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9780399549731]

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The War of Talents, Part I

TableWolvesThirty-three year old Kim Tavistock is looking for something to do with herself. Recently removed from a newspaper job in the U.S., Kim is back in England and living with her father. It’s 1936 and jobs are hard to find and women are the last in line to get them.

Perhaps in these early days leading up to World War II, Kim might find employ as a spy for King and Country. She does, after all, possess a very unusual talent. Ever since she was 12, she’s been able to inspire people to reveal embarrassing secrets. This “spill talent” made things awkward for potential boyfriends, but it might be useful in espionage endeavors. That’s what Kim is hoping.

Contrary to popular assumptions, however, being a spy isn’t the glamorous career people make it out to be. Kim quickly finds out that it’s a tawdry job, morally wretched and liable to get her killed – especially when she’s attempting to infiltrate a nest of shady Germans promoting their Nazi agenda.

The Germans have a crazy plan to invade England by building a Boom Tube-like conduit across the North Sea. To do this, they’re conscripting a team of metahumans with extraordinary preternatural abilities. The key to the whole thing rests on the shoulders of a high-powered “chorister” who’s able to aggregate Nazi Übermensch for maximum carnage.

Kim is determined to disrupt the oncoming invasion using her unique talent. Like a guitarist endlessly searching for the perfect chord, she’s consorting with Sicherheitsdienst agents looking for the defining spill. She’s a bit naïve but fearless nonetheless. She doesn’t consider herself a superhero, a Valkyrie warrior, or anything so presumptuous, but one way or another she’s going to use her spill skillz to keep England safe.

The years just prior to WWII represent an undeclared shadow war of subterfuge, filled with spies, assassins, powerbrokers, puppet masters, political agitators, disrupters, alchemists, and superheroes. As such, it serves as the perfect milieu for Kay Kenyon’s new alt-history series featuring superheroes with highly unusual and arcane talents. England is lucky to have Kim “Nazi Smasher” Tavistock on its payroll. To be continued in Serpent in the Heather (available April 2018).

[At the Table of Wolves / By Kay Kenyon / First Printing: July 2017 / ISBN: 9781481487788]

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The Life and Death of Rasputin

GhostsEmpireHow do you kill something that’s already dead? It’s simple. Every zombie, mummy, and vampire knows the answer to that question. Life is the only thing that can defeat death.

But somehow Grigori Rasputin didn’t get cc’d on the memo. In Ghosts of Empire, the self-proclaimed mystic from the early 20th century was orchestrating an attack on London from his icy tomb in St. Petersburg. The mad monk died in 1916, but he stubbornly continued to preside over the vagaries of the universe. “Death was the only constant,” he crowed.

Thank goodness Gabriel Cross (aka the Ghost) was visiting England during Rasputin’s siege. The New Yorker was hoping for a little R&R during his vacation (see Ghosts of Karnak for further details), but he wasn’t the sort of guy to shy away from a coven of Russian wizards making trouble. “The Ghost is part of my life,” explained Cross. “Wherever I go, he goes too.”

Rasputin and his Korschei Corps had inveigled their way into London, bringing with them a dark elemental magic from abroad. Like an album by Iggy and the Stooges, the power they wielded was primal and raw. It was up to Cross, the British Secret Service, and an eight-foot tall perambulatory tree to turn back the invasion. “I’m amazed at our capacity to find trouble wherever we go,” said an exasperated member of Team Ghost.

This is the fourth Ghost novel from author George Mann, and each one has been an enjoyable steampunk/superhero mash-up featuring a “solitary figure of vengeance.” If you like pulp fiction and mysteries with a supernatural twist (like us), you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the ongoing adventures of Gabriel Cross and his crimefighting colleagues.

After an explosive novel-ending kerfuffle, Rasputin was smote by the very elemental forces he claimed to control. He bragged to his enemies that he had mastered death, but in reality all he had done was perpetuate it – inflicting misery upon everyone around him. He was nothing but a living corpse held together by ancient tattoos, pictograms, and sigils. Like every ghoul before him, Rasputin was destroyed by life.

[Ghosts of Empire / By George Mann / First Printing: October 2017 / ISBN: 9781783294183]

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Hocus Pocus POTUS

Flash HocusPocusSuperhero novels are a great platform for metaphor and subtext. Rarely, and for good reason, do authors use their work to comment explicitly on current events. Nobody wants to read a Hulk novel about changes in the E.U. general data protection regulations. That would be ridiculous.

But in The Flash: Hocus Pocus, author Barry Lyga can’t help himself. He throws a little shade at Donald J. Trump. And who can blame him? Even in a world filled with weather wizards, mirror masters, king sharks, and giant sentient gorillas, the reality of President Boss Baby is too much to endure.

Before we get to the Trump burn, we have to back up for a moment. At the beginning of the novel, Team Flash (including all your favorites from the TV show) is slightly bewildered by the arrival of a new supervillain in Central City. Hocus Pocus was a weird anachronistic guy. He dressed like an old-timey magician but carried a magic wand loaded with futuristic tech. He’s called a “criminal mastermind” on the book’s back cover, but that isn’t exactly right. More accurately, he’s like the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz – simply a bully and a bellicose boob.

But he did have one substantial trick up his sleeve. Hocus Pocus could brainwash anyone to do his iniquitous bidding. And what he wanted to do more than anything was take control of Central City. It would be easy. All he had to do was wave his magic wand to convince people that he was worthy of being President Abra Kadabra, No Russian interference or gerrymandering required.

Thank goodness Magic Man wasn’t very bright (“He didn’t seem to understand strategic thinking,” says Barry Allen at one point). Because of his brainwashing powers, Hocus Pocus surrounded himself with bootlickers and brownnosers. He became addicted to applause and flattery. And this was his ultimate folly. “Dude’s obsessed with having people get their worship on,” says Cisco Ramon. “He needs a reality TV show or something.”

Yup, that’s right. Instead of pursuing a life of crime, Hocus Pocus could have been a huge TV star. He could easily have won every season of Survivor, American Idol, and Dancing with the Stars. With a flick of his wand, he could have dominated The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. He could have done anything he wanted. “He could even have run for president,” adds Caitlyn Snow. Perish the thought!

[The Flash: Hocus Pocus / By Barry Lyga / First Printing: October 2017 / ISBN: 9781419728150]

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