Shadowhawk reviews recent debut Adam Christopher’s second novel for Angry Robot in which he writes once more about superheroes but gives them centerstage.
“Adam Christopher has struck gold, again. If any SF novel this year deserves a sequel, its Seven Wonders!” ~The Founding Fields
January marked Adam Christopher’s debut on the publishing screen with his novel Empire State, a book that transcended various genres and drew them into a cohesive whole that also brought together several popular science-fiction concepts (Review). As my first Angry Robot title, it also set a trend for almost all the other titles I’ve read this year from them: that Angry Robot consistently publishes some of the best genre fiction out there. Pretty much all the Angry Robot books I’ve read this year have broadened my reading horizons quite a bit (historical fantasy, thrillers, urban fantasy, non-Euro Medieval fantasy, Vampires, etc) and Adam’s Seven Wonders is no exception to that. It is the first (full-on) superhero novel I’ve ever read, the only other being Empire State as best as I can recall. And you know what, its a mighty fine read indeed, certainly among the best titles that AR has put out to-date, even when compared against all the other fantastic novels they’ve published this year.
Seven Wonders follows ordinary guy Tony Prosdocimi as he stops a bank robbery and takes on the city’s greatest supervillain, The Cowl. Tony has recently begun manifesting some superhero abilities like super-speed and (he is not quite sure at this point) super-toughness among others and he figures he has a shot at taking down the big bad villain all by himself and save the lives of dozens of people in the bargain. Of course, things don’t quite go according to plan, for either Tony or The Cowl, and what follows is one of the most fun, enjoyable, and engrossing stories I’ve read this year.
The superhero angle is of course the big selling point of the novel, one that is not limited to the scope of a single superhero, but an entire team of them and then some. The Seven Wonders are one of the last remaining superhero teams on the planet and they’ve made San Ventura their home, a home where they are locked in a cold war with The Cowl, going on for several years now. That’s the part that really drew me in. It also helped that the first page of the book has a quote from The Cowl himself, and then we get a quick bio-intro to the Seven Wonders in an old-school newscast style, or in one of the old comics (by my best guess). The short descriptions of each of the heroes quickly drew me in.
The thing about superheroes is that creating new ones is a tough process, in that they need to stand out from existing ones. Aurora, Bluebell, Sand Cat, Linear, Hephaestus, SMART, and Dragon Star are characters who are reminiscent of some popular superheroes but they are also different in their own way. The focus on them isn’t as individuals but as a team that knows how to work together, no matter what, the individual perspective brought by Tony and The Cowl. In that respect, Seven Wonders could very well be a novel about the Justice League or the Avengers. Each member of the team brings something different to the table, and their individual differences define the team as a whole. That’s what was good in the Avengers movie by Joss Whedon earlier this year, and that’s how things have been in the first six issues of the new Justice League comics by Geoff Johns.
However, the protagonists of the novel are not the Seven Wonders. That role is given to Tony and The Cowl. The Seven Wonders don’t make a substantial appearance until about 40% in, when things kick into really high gear. To be honest, I found that to be a bit subversive (?) on the author’s part. I’d been expecting to see the Seven Wonders much sooner since the novel is titled after them and everything that Tony and The Cowl do, it is out of a response to what the team has been doing over the years: For Tony it is the fact that the Seven Wonders have failed to take The Cowl down after all these years and for the villain, it is the assumption (or perhaps fact?) that he thinks the team just can’t beat him and that he is too powerful for them to handle. A very different approach to what I was expecting. But thinking about it, I suppose it works. One of the biggest draw factors of any superhero, let alone a team of seven, is the mystery and intrigue behind them. The author certainly develops that mystery all through the first half of the novel, building the Seven Wonders as both saviours of San Ventura, and oppressors. Detectives Sam Millar and Joe Milano are definitely in the latter camp while Tony is in the former.
And that’s another angle that the author has used to build up the superheroes. Involved in thwarting the bank robbery that Tony stopped by superspeeding The Cowl out of there, they are on the trail of this mysterious, unknown eighth superhero (aka Tony), and their investigations into The Cowl’s activities suffer as a result. There’s also a personal touch to the proceedings since The Cowl killed Sam’s husband some years back and she’s out for revenge, no matter what it takes. Her paranoia, her fanaticism towards The Cowl is one of the biggest driving forces of the novel. In the second half, this is an even bigger factor, for reasons I can’t mention as they constitute massive spoilers.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Adam’s characters are superb here. Every one of them has flaws: Tony his recklessness, Sam her single-mindedness, The Cowl his arrogance, the Seven Wonders their (inexplicable at first) indifference towards their enemy. But in their own way, each of them rises above that, they all change over the course of the novel. The learning curve they all go through is enjoyable because it is delivered in a really cynical, jaded way. It reminds me to a degree of Matt Forbeck’s Magic The Gathering comics from IDW, although that series is all D&D-based fantasy rather than anything to do with superheroes. The feel, the atmosphere that the author has created in the novel is very much the same. And it makes me really like these characters. No one, not even the two detectives, are straight-up-and-narrow characters. In the world the author has created, there are no absolutes, no black and white distinctions. Everything is a mix of black and white.
One character I forgot to mention is Blackbird, The Cowl’s accomplice and lover. She was downright fantastic, certainly one of the most likable characters in the entire novel. She ROCKED, and that’s all I’m gonna say. The final scene of the novel, while a bit cheesy for my tastes, is certainly one of the more memorable ones, especially since she is involved in it. And to be honest, I did expect something like it, since the actual climax lefts things a bit unresolved.
If you take a look at the novel in its entirety, then you find that it has a very whimsical tone to it. As someone who has never read the Silver Age/Golden Age-era comics, I can’t exactly relate to that feel of it, but it is certainly done in a very romantic style than what you find in superhero comics today. The focus on the Seven Wonders quickly transforms into a focus on them as individuals who matter in the grand scheme of things because the scope of the novel isn’t limited to just the city of San Ventura. There are bigger dangers than the world’s last supervillain. Suffice to say that the big bad climax of the novel is very reminiscent of the climax to Joss Whedon’s Avengers, or the season 5 finale of Justice League Unlimited (well, actually season 3 since the first two seasons of the show were known as just Justice League).
One of the really cool things about the novel are all the references to people in the publishing industry, whether writers or agents or what have you. Lafferty Boulevard (author Mur Lafferty). The Maass and Decker street intersection (Adam is represented by Stacia Decker at the Donald Maass Agency if I’m not mistaken). The Slipstream energy that speedster Linear draws upon is very familiar to the Speed Force that all (most of at any rate) speedsters in DC-verse like Flash use. The Vincent and Abnett street intersection (Dan Abnett is a long-time writer of novels and comics alike, Nik Vincent is his wife and also an author). Billionaire (or is it trillionaire?) Geoff Conroy (Geoff Johns is a renowned comics writer and is currently working on the new Justice League series, Kevin Conroy is the definitive voice of Batman from various Batman animated shows and movies). Dex Brubaker (Ed Brubaker is another renowned comics writer). And so on. There are probably a lot more of these callbacks, especially when a whole swathe of superheroes are mentioned in the last third of the novel, when going up against the big bag villains no one had an idea about generally.
These are all the things that make Seven Wonders such a great read. There is a lot of attention to detail that has gone in the novel, whether it is related to the characters or the locations or the larger setting itself, and its all in true comics style (or perhaps how some of the best novels are anyway).
The only downside to the novel is that at times it felt like it drags on a bit too long, especially towards the end when everyone is fighting against the big bag. The pacing is off in the section too since a few things are just abrupt and there isn’t a proper resolution between some characters that allows them to work together. That’s really it.
In totality, Seven Wonders is a massively fun book that you definitely should read, especially if you like your superheroes to be morally grey and not straight up goody-two-shoes type. No boy scouts in this book, as Batman would say!