Refined: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 3 stars

The fourth, and final, book in the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project series takes place some months after the last – with Prism still unable to properly access her light-based powers, and Aidan still struggling to adapt to having returned from effectively being dead. A villain has found out that Fade is the son of a long-disappeared sable hitman named Syphon, and repercussions for Prism, Fade and the whole team follow. And they’re not helped by a new SVR recruit foisted upon them by the powers that be.

It felt like there was more melodrama in this book than in previous ones – a long-lost father; someone struggling to admit their feelings for a colleague; someone keeping a secret that could put others in danger – but it was still an enjoyable read. The new recruit – Voidling – was initially someone I thought who wasn’t going to be hugely interesting, but her story arc surprised me by not going where I thought it would at all.

The main arc of the story is about redemption and forgiveness, as Syphon tries to atone for his past. He’s also not the character that I was expecting from a supervillain hitman, but that’s for the best. If anything, I think he was maybe too sympathetic and his past whitewashed a bit.

I was surprised by the lack of consequences from some of Fade’s actions from the last book. They were briefly mentioned at the start but then disappear from the story. That’s a bit disappointing, but Fade’s over-protectiveness/controlling thing from the last book has also been toned down, which is something.

There was more Tanvi in the book than the last one, which is always cheering, as she’s such a fun character, if a bit angsty here. There was less Bob, alas, but we can’t have everything.

It’s been a fun series, steeped in superhero tropes but happily playing around with them. The end of the book (and the series) sees a lot of change, and it felt like a good ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 2021

Reborn: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

Reborn picks up the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project story about a year after the last book finished, with Prism heavily pregnant but as busy as ever. The driving force of this book is that Aiden, Prism’s brother, is alive (following the revelation for the reader at the end of the last book). Now on the one hand, it’s an long-established trope that superheroes rarely stay dead for long, but on the other, I had thought the treatment of Prism’s grief and growing acceptance of Aiden’s death in Redeemed was very well done, and this revelation felt like it undermined it a bit.

Still, the book does deal with the consequences of finding that Aiden is alive. Prism will stop at nothing to get him back, and she finds her mental balance thrown, as it’s repeatedly pointed out to her that there might not be enough left of him to save.

It’s Fade that’s most interesting here though. He’s someone who’s never had anything to lose in the past, and now he has not only a wife, but a child as well. This leads to some… dubious decisions. We didn’t see much in the way of consequences of that this time, but I expect chickens coming home to roost at some point. It also led Fade becoming over-protective to the point of being on the edge of being controlling. It’ll be interesting to see if that goes anywhere, or if I’m just being overly sensitive.

As always, there’s not enough Keeper (and Yui) – but then I’m biased towards there being more Scots in media – nor enough Tanvi, who’s probably my favourite character at this point. We got cameo appearances from some of the teens from the last book, along with their adopted parents, which was nice to see.

As with the rest of the series, the book is extremely readable. I enjoy the superhero world writ large, and this series scratches that itch admirably. Intrigued by the hook in the epilogue and already looking forward to the next one.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an unbiased review.

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

Redeemed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

This book picks up a few months after the events of Reformed, with the whole team still reeling over the shock of Aiden’s death in the previous book, but with Prism and Fade a strong couple. Tanvi injures a sable who she sees breaking into a house and is shocked to find that it’s a just a teenage girl. She persuades Prism to recruit the girl, Alma, as the next recruit for the Supervillian Rehabilitation Project. But Alma has secrets of her own and is running from her past.

I enjoyed this short book a lot. Prism and Fade being an established couple works much better for me than bringing them together, and the interpersonal problems of a devoted Christian and a hand-waving theist make for surprisingly real drama.

I liked that we got to see much of both Tanvi and Bob this time round, although they’re still not PoV characters, and Yui also played a much more active role in the plot. Sidenote: I really liked the idea of Bob’s wife always being around, but nobody has any idea about it. It’s a neat little idea that tickled my fancy.

The true villain of the piece, Handler, was one that made me want to shower every time he was on the page. I really hate the idea of mind control, so his powers (not to mention his ruthlessness) made him an effective villain in my eyes.

Unlike the previous book, this one definitely ends on a cliffhanger, and I look forward to reading the next two books in the series, as they come out.

Book details

Reformed: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a bit of a sucker for traditional superhero stories, so this short novel set in world of regulated superheroes with its strong thread of redemption was a compelling draw. Prism is the young leader of a superhero team, eager to carry on her father’s work in rehabilitating former supervillains. She chooses Fade: someone who had started on the road to redemption and then relapsed.

I love a good redemption story, and while this isn’t entirely the route that the book takes, it’s still fun. There’s a romance between the two leads, signposted very early on, which gave me cause to grumble at the start, as the the chemistry between them felt more told rather than shown. Normally, I roll my eyes at that old cliché, but I guess it’s a cliché for a reason. It wasn’t until quite late in the book that I felt emotionally invested enough in the two characters for their budding relationship to really work for me.

Other than that, I enjoyed it a lot. Of Prism’s team, only her and her brother get a lot of character development, with Keeper (animal control) and Tanvi (super strength) playing supporting roles. I hope they’ll get more to do in future books (especially with the revelation about Keeper towards the end of this one).

Fade never really feels as dangerous or likely to turn on the team as the cover blurb suggested, but the external threat that Prism’s team has to deal with alongside integrating Fade is powerful and works well as a unifying force within the group.

The world is fun and the book doesn’t treat itself hugely seriously. Despite my few gripes, it’s just what I needed in the moment.

(and it’s part of the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, so you can read it for free if you’ve got a Kindle and Amazon Prime)

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway

By Rhys Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that this tale of a troubled young man who dresses as a superhero to avoid dealing with trauma in his past isn’t the sort of thing I would normally read. But it got a glowing review in a magazine I usually trust and I’m a sucker for a good romance.

Sam is an average guy with a nice house, some nice friends who are as equally socially awkward as he is, and a decent job. He also dresses up a few times a week to fight crime (well, help old ladies across the street, give young kids a heart to heart, and help drunks out of graves, mostly). And then Sarah walks into his life and things will change forever.

Sam is a likeable guy, probably on the spectrum and some aspects of his life hit a little too close to the mark for me personally. His awkwardness around Sarah felt completely authentic and once they did eventually get together, there’s still a lot of tension because you’re just waiting for the secrets to come out and for things to go horribly wrong.

When I were a lad, romances tended to be built up throughout the book and resolved with the couple getting together in time for the climax (so to speak). Whereas here, and possibly in modern romance more generally (like I say, it’s not usually my genre), they get together by the middle of the book, and then things fall apart. In that sense, it reminds me of the film La La Land, although it has a very different thematic ending to that film.

The characterisation of Sam is excellent, although his two friends, with the somewhat unlikely nicknames of Tango and Blotchy, are much less well served. Even Sarah feels like she could have had a better treatment. Of all people, I was surprised that Sam’s boss, Mr Okamatsu, got a lot of attention.

This is a powerful story about grief, loneliness, kindness and love. It’s a very quick read and left me with a number of emotions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hug my nephlings.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472248145
Publisher: Wildfire
Year of publication: 2018

They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded

By James Alan Gardner

Rating: 4 stars

I loved All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault and timed it such that I finished it just as the sequel was released. This book focuses on Jools, another of the four housemates who get caught in a lab explosion and gained superpowers. She’s the jock of the group, and the one who’s struggling most with her studies. This combination ends her up with immediate knowledge of anything that’s part of the corpus of public knowledge and Olympic-level mastery of any human skill.

Despite these skills, Gardner paints a skilful picture of a young woman who’s good at giving the appearance of confidence and having it together but who is actually a bit of a wreck and is now struggling with a degree of inferiority compared to her superpowered teammates. Oh, and she’s also afraid that she’s turning into a Mad Genius who will stop caring about the devastation that her potential inventions could wreak. And that she’s got a drink problem.

The Darkling siblings Nick and Elaine return in this book, albeit more for an extended cameo than anything else. The blood bond between Elaine and Kim (now just K, having moved further toward the non-binary part of the spectrum) is used to drive the plot forward, and there is, of course, the eponymous gun. Believed to be created by Mad Genius Diamond from the first book, it’s very much the definition of a macguffin.

The Spark world is expanded as well. In addition to Grandfather and Invie, this book introduces us to the Aussie All-Stars and Robin Hood and his gang of Merry Men, a group of outlaw Sparks who rob the rich (Darklings) and (allegedly) give to the poor. Jools gets caught up with them and struggles to keep herself right.

The whole potential mind rape thing is rather disturbing, even if nothing happens to Jools. The idea that not only does Robin do this to other women, but that it’s facilitated by Marion is icky. Those were the most intense chapters of the book for me, when Jools is beset all round and separated from her teammates, having to rely entirely on her own resources (which are more than she gives herself credit for). I almost punched the air when Zircon finally turned up.

I’m thoroughly enjoying this series and a quick tweet to the author assures me that he’s already at work on the next one (Miranda’s book). This one is perhaps slightly not as good as its predecessor, but it’s still a highly enjoyable read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765398789
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2018

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault

By James Alan Gardner

Rating: 5 stars

Yet another book I picked up from John Scalzi’s Big Idea. The author talked about his desire to write a really fun superhero novel and that caught my attention. Modern superheroes all seem to be full of angst and woe, and this sounded different. And oh goodness, it was so much fun! In a world where monsters and heroes are real, four college housemates get caught up in a science lab explosion (what else?) that turns them into superheroes. Before they can take a breath and worry about the important things (cool costumes and a team name), they’ve got to figure out who is causing all the explosions and stop them from killing a good fraction of the population of the city.

The first thing that really caught my eye in this book was the idea that there’s a pricetag associated with “Dark Conversion” (i.e. being turned into a vampire/were-animal/demon/etc) and that it’s high. The idea that only the One Percent can afford it and suddenly they become so much more visible and (even more) differentiated from the rest of society is brilliant. It’s a compelling metaphor for the rich and how they view the rest of us. By comparison, the Light can choose anyone, no need for wealth or power. One rogue gamma ray and bam, you’ve got superpowers (rather than radiation poisoning). I also like how aware the book is of its own tropes and it meta-analyses them just enough to be fun and not so much to be irritating.

Our protagonist is Kim Lam, a geology student with a past she’d like to forget parts of. Her housemates are science students of various types and get just enough fleshing out to make them interesting (I see from the sample of the sequel at the end of the book at the next one is told from Jools’ perspective, so hopefully each of the team will get their own book and character development) but Kim gets the most. When they develop superpowers, her geology obsession gives her rock-hard skin, and her desire to hide gives her shrinking powers. I’m not sure where her 360-degree roving vision comes from, but it’s not something I’ve seen before in my (admittedly limited) superhero reading and is very cool.

So the book is hugely readable, with a sharp and sympathetic first-person narrator in Kim, with a fascinating world that leaves me hungry for more (I see a sequel is just out!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780765392633
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

Astonishing X-Men Ultimate Collection Volume 1

By Joss Whedon

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that I’m not hugely familiar with the X-Men. I used to watch the cartoon when I was young, and watched the first couple of films. This first half of Joss Whedon’s run with the X-Men covers two story arcs. In the first, the idea of a cure for mutation is introduced, along with an alien who has a vendetta against the X-Men. In the second, a damaged sentinel attacks the X-Men mansion under the orders of an unseen mastermind and there is danger from within.

The volume focusses on a core group, missing Professor X, who reform the X-Men as a superhero team to be visible and a beacon for the good that mutants can do in the world. Scott Summers and Emma Frost are co-leaders, with Hank McCoy, Kitty Pride and Logan filling out the ranks (superhero codenames are hardly ever used). It’s a fun book, filled with Whedon’s trademark humour (a particular favourite is a fight where Kitty and Colossus have thought bubbles that are mostly angst, and then we cut to Logan who’s just thinking how much he loves beer). It’s a great way to cut the tension and stop it feeling too “woe is me”.

It’s also a decent introduction to the characters, even for someone like me, whose knowledge of the X-Men and the universe is limited. We get up to speed with who everyone is, what the setup is and what the factions are quickly, and without infodumping – as you would expect from a writer of Whedon’s calibre.

The art is pretty good, although I wouldn’t call it special. There are some good splash pages and it fits the superhero style well. The one disconcerting thing for me in terms of the art is that Nick Fury is white. As far as I’m concerned Nick Fury is, and has always been, black (and looked like Samuel L. Jackson). This series predates the MCU by a good four years, but it’s still disconcerting for someone who’s main entry to Marvel has been the MCU.

So a good entry to the X-Men universe, with good characterisation of the cast and a fun book to read, enhanced by Joss Whedon’s ear for dialogue.

Book details

ISBN: 9780785161943
Publisher: Marvel
Year of publication: 2004

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar

Rating: 4 stars

I rather enjoyed this “what if” story, asking the question of what would happen if the infant Superman had crashed in the Soviet Union rather than the US. It starts in the 1950s when Superman has come into his powers and is working for the Soviet authorities, under Stalin, and charts his rise and eventual fall, alongside Lex Luthor. Other superheroes also turn up, both Wonder Woman and Batman, both reimagined in some sort of Russian context (I don’t care what anyone says, Batman’s furry hat is adorable, and very practical) as well as Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen.

I like how Miller has played on the tension between the sort of world that Superman is born into and his fundamental good nature, a nature that just wants to help people. The idea of what help means is drawn out, as Superman comes to believe that in order to help people, he has to take the very Soviet view of creating order, sort of the antithesis of American individualism.

The battle of wits that goes on between Superman in Russian and Luther in America is well played too, lasting decades, as Luther goes from a well-balanced scientist into full scheming megalomaniac mode, in his attempts to bring down Superman.

So all in, a nice alt-hist with a very neat twist at the end of the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840238013
Publisher: Titan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2003

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)

By Becky Chambers

Rating: 5 stars

Update 2018-05-14: second time round, I loved this book as much as I did previously. The only comment I’d make is that since I now knew where Jane’s story was going, I could engage much more with Sidra early on. Definitely a book that rewards rereading.

Original review:
I didn’t think it would be possible, but I adored this book almost as much as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I thought I would miss the crew of the Wayfarer too much, but the Lovelace instance last seen leaving the Wayfarer in an illegal body, in the company of a tech wizard slowly enchanted me. This book tells both Lovelace’s (soon renamed Sidra) story and that of Pepper, and why she is so keen to help Sidra. For the first half, I found Pepper’s story much more engaging than Sidra’s, as she was suffering worse (or, at least, more relatable) deprivations.

But Chambers is better than that, and she slowly draws you into Sidra’s head and you feel for her as much as you do for Pepper and then she draws the two strands together at the end in a joyous and satisfying conclusion that may leave you blubbing but buoyant and with no AI-cide this time round, either!. Speaking of blubbing, I made the mistake of reading this on public transport, and was welling up more than once (Owl meeting Jane in the Big Bug sim was a roundhouse to the feels!), so be warned.

The theme of AI rights, which was touched upon in Small, Angry Planet comes much more to the fore here. Like in Ann Leckie’s Ancilliary books, it’s something where (sentient) AIs are taken very much for granted in this world and aren’t considered worth spending any time on, but as we found out in Small, Angry Planet, they can grow, feel and fall in love. Sidra is constantly terrified that others might find out what she is, and she’ll be terminated, because she’s not considered to be a person. And this fear means that she has to hide who she really is, and deny her self and her purpose.

I hope that this thread will be picked up again in later books, but given how different this is to its predecessor, I’m willing to bet that Chambers will surprise us all over again. And I, for one, am hugely looking forward to it!

Book details

ISBN: 9781473621473
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2016

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