Review of Zeroes by

Book cover for Zeroes

I’m not sure how much of a compliment this is, what with the low opinion I have of most CW shows (Supernatural notwithstanding), but Zeroes is one of the first superhero novels I’ve read that could be a CW show. It reminds me a lot of the well-intentioned but ill-fated attempts like Alphas (which I know wasn’t the CW, but that’s neither here nor there), in that it follows the standard formula: a group of people have powers, or abilities, and come together clandestinely to tackle your everyday grievances. But they are unsure of themselves, and sometimes each other, so they have those internal conflicts to sort out along the way.

Oh, and here they’re only fifteen years old.

I’ve only read books by Scott Westerfeld and not Margo Lanagan or Deborah Biancotti, so it’s hard to see the influence of individual authors here. But I have a suspicion that fans of any of these three authors will enjoy Zeroes, if only because the book has a unified voice despite being a product of three. I was sceptical about having six perspectives—this isn’t Game of Thrones—but it helps that the narration stays in third person. More importantly, the different perspectives help us understand that the real challenge the Zeroes face is not the world out there but their own conflicting emotions about their anomalous abilities.

Westerfeld et al do a great job at balancing teenage angst and superhero angst. It’s this combination of angst that makes me think about CW shows. Here we have an ensemble cast balanced in gender and diverse in ethnicity, and each character has their own struggles at home in addition to (or because of) their power. Although Flickonymous steals the show for me, I am surprised how invested I became in all of the Zeroes—it’s hard to choose favourites.

Even Nate, manipulative, scheming, Nate, is a great example of someone who is sympathetic even if he’s not likable. With his power to harness the charisma of crowds for his own uses, Nate has ambitions of a political bent. And he doesn’t hesitate to prod the Zeroes into going along with him on things. The way Chizara (and, occasionally, Flicker) butt heads with him is a nice reminder that he doesn’t always speak for the group. And I can see a future where Nate misuses his powers and ends up more on the supervillain side of things. Forget Chizara’s crash-induced highs: if any of the Zeroes go dark, my money would be on Nate.

The tagline on this edition’s cover reads, “Every power has a price.” Too many superhero stories these days seem to focus on this facet of the superpower trope set. Simply put, a lot of stories about superpowers turn into downers; in the quest for gritty realism or conflict, authors end up making their superpowered characters cursed and burdened. Zeroes certainly explores this angle: Anonymous can’t stick in people’s heads, not even the other Zeroes’; Ethan’s voice, of course, always gets him into trouble. Nevertheless, the book takes a more proactive approach to this theme. The Zeroes see their powers develop as they use them more, and it becomes clear (as in the case of Flicker and Anonymous) that there are more dimensions to their powers.

There are also subtle attempts to examine what it means to be a hero, which for me is always what superhero stories need to be about. (It’s for this reason that I’m loving Supergirl on CBS so much—small shout-out here!) Chizara’s credo of “do no harm” with her power leads to her breaking with the other Zeroes. As much as my “can’t we all just get along?” voice cringed at this moment, I was totally with Chizara and her tirade against Nate’s meddling. But it’s not black-and-white, and towards the climax of the book, Chizara learns that sometimes not doing something can in fact result in harm. To her credit, she realizes this pretty quickly.

This is a young adult book in the sense that its characters are young. And they mess up like fifteen-year-olds might. Nate seems much too mature for his age—and that’s because he’s a little precocious, given his upbringing and charms—but the other Zeroes show the cracks in their adolescent facades. There are times when Westerfeld et al stretch credibility a little thinly—lots of underage driving here. Similarly, while I might believe a group of fifteen-year-olds getting mixed up with drug lords, the book tries too hard to walk the line between gritty and goofy.

Superhero novels are so often a mixed bag, and Zeroes is no exception. But it’s probably a better mixed bag than I’ve read in a while. Its characters are diverse—not just in terms of their backgrounds, but also in their personalities. None of them are too dominant, in the sense that I never groaned when the book switched to a specific character’s perspective. And although the background plot involving drug gangs and mobsters and a bank robbery gone awry occasionally gets lost in the relationship drama, this feels all too appropriate for the Zeroes’ first outing. I’m very interested to see what happens in the next book.

Oh, and I totally ship Flicker/Anonymous. Soooooo good. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chizara and Nate hit it off next, though it might be weird of the six Zeroes all start pairing off with each other. But Flicker is my fave, and I’m glad she was able to help her little lost Nothing boy.

Engagement

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