Villains Inc by Marion G Harmon
It’s wonderful to be able to start off a review with high praise. We’ve got the woogyness down to three appearances and absolutely no nuggying at all! The thin lady has stopped singing in her YA voice and has left the junior theatre of war against the villains to join the grown-ups. Indeed, as befits the second book, Villains Inc (available from Amazon), Marion G Harmon has also completely left the nursery slopes and is now skiing on the main pistes like a seasoned veteran. Whereas there were distinct signs that Wearing the Cape was his first-published book, it’s equally distinct that Villains Inc is a more assured authorial performance. There are three clear signs of his graduation as a writer of quality. The first is the language. Although there’s an intentional element of irony in my opening praise, it’s also genuine in that the use of words like “woogy” no doubt reflects the way teen girls talk. Insofar as the first book is a coming-of-age story, you would expect the language of Hope Corrigan aka Astra to mature. She’s forced to be around adults and, more importantly, act as if she’s older than she is. Indirectly, the same applies to the young people who share the secret of her identity as a superhero: Megan, Annabeth and Julie joined, of course by Dane Dorweiler. They must all change as they start advancing through the higher education system. More generally, the prose is taut and economical. It powers the narrative as a real page-turner.
The second major sign is that all the characters are developing. Too often, an author comes up with a basic set of character sketches and then mechanically applies it to evolving situations. That way, if the series takes off, the fans get what they are expecting in the sequels. Except, if the same basic responses are made every time, even the most dedicated fans grow bored. Two or three books is the usual limit for holding strictly to the formula. There must then be development or the series will die. Here, from the off, Marion G Harmon has everyone adapting to the new situations. Hope’s parents are slowly accepting the need to be less protective and will live with the fact their daughter may come home bruised and somewhat battered. Her friends are literally prepared to rally round to help her change into costume. The rest of the team are not only starting to trust her physical strength, but also to recognise her growing intellectual assuredness. She’s now the liaison with the “human” police and supports the CSIs. Among the superheroes, she’s making significant contributions to the planning of sorties but can also take over strategic direction when the line of command fails.
The third sign is the logical way in which the plot is unwinding. As an example, let’s come to Shelley, the disembodied friend with access to future records. Except, as different choices are made in their immediate timeline, those records grow increasingly unreliable. At first sight, it appears a bit frustrating that our heroes are not making the choices to replicate the snapshot they have of the future. Just think how convenient it would be if, every time there was an unsolved crime, Shelley could just check her memory and read out the name of the culprit. Ah, the supposed benefits of determinism. Perfect certainty. . . just follow the behavioural pattern to produce the outcomes in Shelley’s records. But this would not be a benefit if the records show various cherished people dying. The heroes are forewarned yet are powerless to avert the deaths? Ah, the tragedy of implacable fate. How much better that we have causation without determinism, i.e. Shelley only has a record of one possible future. That means, as Michel Foucault and other postmodernists have pointed out, the silences and differences can speak just as loudly as the words.
It’s the way current reality diverges from the future record that can teach them the most. Once the team realises a sequence of events is not playing out as recorded, it can analyse the possible causes for the difference. Armed with this information, they can begin the process of establishing a new timeline in which adverse events are avoided. This is properly Aristotelian. It accepts that it’s impossible for an outcome to have a single necessary cause. There will always be always multiple interactive causes stretching back through time. Hence, there will be many opportunities for a beneficial intervention to change the possible outcome. In this, it’s good to see the range of the powers expanding away from the conventional super-strength, run-faster, fly-higher stereotypes to include what we might properly call supernatural abilities. The somewhat dishevelled Detective Don Fisher is a nice case in point in having unexpected virtues. The design and fabricating capacities of the appropriately named Vulcan also gives us a grounding in science fiction to balance out the more general fantasy nature of the cast of heroes and villains. His attempts to develop a cybernetic body and the AI software to animate it prove vital.
Finally a word about the pacing. We start off with a bang. Confronting and defeating a Godzilla is a high so, coming back to Earth, all we have to worry about is someone with the power to reduce a victim to a liquid and put it in a box — a small box! Now that’s really disconcerting. Thereafter, we’re slowly but surely building to the final confrontation with the villains. Villains Inc is very entertaining with some nice revelations at the end to set us up for what could be an interesting series! At this point, I note the third book to be published is called Bite Me: Big Easy Nights which is to fill in the gap between the first two books and tell us how Artemis spent her time in New Orleans. It’s an interesting creative decision to step back in time and I wait to see whether these events are presented as free-standing or will feed back into initial storyline set in Chicago.
Cover art by Viktoria Gavrilenko.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.