I love the idea of superhero fiction. I don't actually read that much, mostly because it comes in the form of comics and graphic novels. I don't have anything against those. They're just not my typical jam.
The sudden trend towards writing about superheroes in the novel form is a boon to me, then, because the novel is my jam. (I'm a little pessimistic about the shelf life of the novel as a form in the digital age, but that's another story.) In particular, in this translation of superheroes from pens and ink to the primarily written word, some writers are deconstructing the tropes of the superhero genre. Instead of writing stories that embrace the conventional attributes of the superhero and their role in the plot, these writers question what it means to be a superhero and explore the ramifications of a world in which people with superpowers exist and actually fight crime. In short, many superhero novels take a realist approach to the genre, something I find intriguing.
I wouldn't go so far as to call Seven Wonders realist, but it certainly has echoes of this approach. The superheroes in this novel age (for the most part), and there are physical consequences to their powers (except for those heroes powered by magic). However, Adam Christopher definitely questions the idea that superheroes are always a force for good and supervillains are always a force for evil. He casts doubt on the moral superiority of superheroes and questions whether great power, while conferring great responsibility, should also confer great privilege.
San Ventura is a distorted twin to the Metropolis of DC comics. In fact, it is part of a larger world in which superheroes are (or were) common and super-teams triumphed over almost all the supervillains. It's the Silver Age now, with the Cowl the only supervillain left worth fighting. Instead of every hero coming together to take him down, however, they seem content to retire and let the Seven Wonders team keep him contained in San Ventura. Oddly enough, only a few citizens in San Ventura have much of a problem with this. As the Cowl readies his latest devious machination, the Seven Wonders watch but do not interfere, his sidekick schemes, and some very motivated detectives with chips on their shoulder attempt to intervene.
Christopher carefully portrays most of the superheroes as the Other, as something not fully human. He never refers to them by their real, secret identity names; they are always “Aurora” and “Bluebell”. Only as the Cowl loses the last of his powers does his name revert; in the reverse direction, as Tony gains superpowers and begins crafting his superhero persona, Christopher gradually refers to him less and less by his civilian name and more often as the Justiciar.
Similarly, we get the sense that the superheroes have a slightly different idea of morality than civilians have. Although the Seven Wonders have a rigid “do not kill” rule, they seem content to stand back and let the Cowl run rampant through San Ventura, killing bystanders, provided he doesn’t step too far out of line. As the story unfolds, Christopher shows how the heroes make choices that increasingly isolate and distance them from the ordinary range of human emotion and ethics. This is true of all of them: Aurora, the leader, makes increasingly complicated schemes; Bluebell uses her mental powers to rearrange the memories of officers sworn to serve and protect merely to serve the Seven Wonders’ own ends; SMART’s logic processors go into overdrive and turn it against its own colleagues; Tony slowly loses his grip on reality as his newfound powers make him feel invincible.
Tony’s arc is one of the two emotional poles of this story and what helps to make the novel so compelling. It’s a lot of fun following Tony on his origin-story journey, watching as he discovers each successive power and its limitations and consequences. And it’s not just the powers, it’s the psychological consequences as well. Fearing discovery by the Seven Wonders, he and his girlfriend work on his powers in secret. It’s a similar but not identical situation to that of Superpowers; in this case, Tony is alone in his acquisition of powers. I could have read an entire novel about Tony’s journey alone.
But that’s not all Christopher gives us. He also explores the same journey in reverse: the dreaded Cowl is losing his powers (hmm, could that be related?—Christopher enjoys leaving clues for the attentive reader to unmask). His story is a race against time to acquire the equipment and information he needs for his final, nefarious plot. Christopher alternatively asks us to sympathize with or disparage the Cowl, once again preferring to paint these people as morally ambiguous rather than comic-book good or evil.
This is all very satisfying, and in these respects, Seven Wonders succeeds as a superhero novel. However, as with Empire State, I still have issues with Christopher’s characterization. It has indubitably improved, but there is still a way to go. This isn’t all down to Christopher, though. I feel like there is something inherently challenging about characterizing superheroes. The sheer profusion of names, aliases, and litany of powers and abilities creates a jargon all on its own.
Still, there are a lot of developments that seem to come out of left field. Christopher does an admirable amount of foreshadowing, but the meandering direction of the plot means our heroes spend a lot of pages going from place to place and talking about how they will deal with the threat rather than actually dealing with it. For a book about superheroes, the number of pages actually portraying superpowered battles is disappointingly small. I had a good handle on the plot for the first half of the book, but as it went on, I felt that handle slipping away.
Seven Wonders, like Christopher’s first venture, is an ambitious book set in an interesting world. It starts off strong but fizzles towards the end. It’s definitely worth reading, for it is both entertaining and thoughtful in its treatment of superhero tropes. Yet it ultimately doesn’t quite achieve the lofty goals it sets for itself.