Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: The High End of Human. Books that push the boundaries of how gifted someone could possibly be before actually having superpowers. In the real world, the closest examples we have of this are prodigies, Olympic athletes, and special forces soldiers, and while it’s rare enough for anybody to be one of those things, it’s not impossible to be a combination of those. So what would that look like, what does it mean to be the smartest, fastest, or strongest human one could possibly be?

So if you like

Superhero novels grounded in reality
Rob Rogers’s Devil’s Cape
Watching the B team step up (as in the movie Mystery Men)
The style of Peter Clines’ Ex-Heroes

You might like

Sidekicks, by Arthur Mayor

Where the gift is:
Olympic level fitness, special forces level combat skills and amazing dexterity. Think: Batman.

Overview

When their teachers get taken out by a new threat, apprentice superheroes have to step up…and try not to die.

Sample passage

“You think this is the place?” I whispered.

“Yes.” She was already digging out a set of tools from her pack.

“Are you sure?”

“Within tolerable levels of certainty. This is the first storage room door we have encountered with security monitoring.”

We’d passed other storage rooms? I was too busy looking for people. Man, I needed to up my infiltration game. “Security monitoring?”

She pointed at two small contact plates at the top of the door. It was the same kind of security clip we’d encountered on the roof door. And she’d neutralized it with similar efficiency.

“How did you pick the lock and circumvent the security system so quickly?”

“I used my superpowers,” she said without irony.

I need better superpowers.

Focus! Performing crime here. I took stock of the stock room. See what I did there? The play on words? Freaked out, not in my element, committing crime — but still delivering the zingers.

The storage room was moderately organized but well equipped. Everything from toilet paper to office supplies covered rows of metal racks. The room itself was about twice as large as my bedroom. Okay, three times, but I have a crappy small bedroom.

“We’ve achieved our objective,” I told the team. “We’re in a storage closet. Anybody need anything? Pens, Post-its, warm diet soda?” It was an off-brand diet soda, too. This was an EVIL base.

“Where is the ‘control room’?” Flare demanded. “I thought Jackal said there was something worth our time here!”

“There’s got to be something in there,” Jackal said. “Look around.”

I was about to start looking around, but while I’d been making jokes, Butterfly had been making progress.

Takeaway

Superhero novels have a higher-than-average chance of being very trite and formulaic as certain tropes have been extensively overused. Sidekicks manages to avoid this with a first-person narrative that serves the purpose of introducing the reader to the world as it’s teenage protagonist discovers it, and providing access to his internal monologue and self doubt as he has to work with other heroes who are vastly more powerful than him. Adding something new to the mix; this is the first time in years I’ve seen an original superpower introduced. Flight, flinging energy, matter manipulation, super reflexes, etc. have all been done before, but the concept of cognates, who can process information extremely quickly, leads to some very clever uses of that ability, and is a good example of some of the fresh takes Mayor has. Sidekicks has some language, but would be age appropriate for middle schoolers and up. It benefits from good pacing a few neat twists, and a clear end to its story. However, Mayor teases more books to come, as it is Superpower Chronicles, Book 1, after all.

Or if you like:

Fantasy on the lighter side
The hero’s journey
Young adult fantasy novels

You might like

Touched by the Gods, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Where the gift is:

Weightlifter grade strength, and phenomenal endurance.

Overview

Malledd is marked by the Gods to be the champion of the empire – but with the gods gone and an army of the dead on the way in he finds himself wondering if he really is who he’s supposed to be, and what he’s going to do about it.

Sample passage

“The priest who came to see you and Father when I was born,” Malledd asked. “What exactly did he say?”

Madeya pulled the thread tight and put her sewing down on the carved wooden box that held her needles and threads. “I don’t remember exactly,” she said, unfolding her legs.

“You didn’t write it down, or anything?”

“No, I didn’t write anything down, but the priest did leave a note for you.”

“To the son of the smith of Grozerodz, greetings,” it said. “By the time you read this you will undoubtedly have heard tales of the great champions of old, who were given great gifts by the gods so that they might help the Domdur, Chosen of the Gods, to attain mastery over all that lies beneath the Hundred Moons. These tales, though sometimes exaggerated, are substantially true.

It came about that an agreement was reached whereby the Domdur would at any given time have one champion, gifted by the gods with supernatural endurance and vitality, who would serve to rally the people of the Domdur Empire, who would fight always for the good of the Empire and the power of the Domdur.

“Now, of course, we have no need of a champion, for the Domdur Empire holds sway over all, yet the gods’ magic still holds its course, and there is always a chosen champion.

“The last champion who was actually called upon to serve the gods was Faial the Redeemer, in the year 854 of the gods’ favor. Upon his death the duty passed to a man named Dunnon, of whom no service was ever required; nor did the gods ask anything of his successor, Mannabi.

“Since it is likely your services will never be required, we see no need to reveal your identity widely. I do not expect you to be besieged by petitioners seeking your aid.

“Should you have any questions or concerns about your duties, every priest in the Empire, including most particularly the oracles, is required to render you whatever aid you might need.

“May all the gods bless you.

Malledd read this through carefully, then went back to the beginning and read it through again.

“Me?” he said.

Takeaway

While this presents as a classic hero’s journey fantasy tale, there are a few twists thrown in here and there. There’s the gods up and checking out, leaving the populace on its own, and there is no shortage of people claiming to be the real champion. Meanwhile Malledd just wants to live a normal life out of the spotlight, since he’s not really sure that what the priest said was true. Eventually he has to reach his own conclusions about what the best course of action is given that, on the one hand he is physically way better than average (although is it champion better than average?), and on the other, he would be going up against very real, very dark magic. If you’re looking for a big fantasy novel that isn’t Game of Thrones intense, this definitely fits the bill.

Or if you like:

Blake Crouch’s Pines novels
Spy thrillers
Plot twists
Not being the smartest guy in the room
Seeing how far being really, really smart will take you

You might like

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

Where the gift is:
Being smart enough to size up certain situations nstantly – which has some interesting implications, depending upon the situation.

Overview

In the 1980’s children started being born with exceptional intelligence, which makes the merely average start worrying about being left behind. Of course, federal legislation follows…

Sample passage

He’d chased Vasquez for nine days now. Someone had warned the programmer just before Cooper got to the Boston walk-up, a brick rectangle where the only light had been a window onto an airshaft and the glowing red eyes of power indicators on computers and routers and surge protectors. The desk chair had been against the far wall as if someone had leaped out of it, and steam still rose from an abandoned bowl of ramen.

Vasquez had run, and Cooper had followed.

He’d gotten a hit on a forged credit card in Cleveland. Two days later a security camera tagged Vasquez renting a car in Knoxville. Nothing for a while, then he’d picked up the trail briefly in Missouri, then nothing again, then a near-miss this morning in a tiny Arkansas town called Hope.

The last twelve hours had been tense, everyone seeing the Mexican border looming large, and beyond it, the wide world into which someone like Vasquez could vanish. But with each move the abnorm made, Cooper got better at predicting the next. Like peeling away layers of tissue paper to reveal the object beneath, a vague form began to resolve into the pattern that defined his target.

Alex Vasquez, twenty-three, five eight, a face you wouldn’t notice and a mind that could see the logic of computer programs unfolding in three dimensions, who didn’t so much write code as transcribe it. Who had waltzed through MIT’s graduate program at age fifteen. Vasquez had a talent of wondrous power, the kind they used to say happened only once a generation.

They didn’t say that anymore.

Takeaway

The surprising thing about Brilliance is not that it’s a tightly written action thriller that takes an interesting concept and runs with it, but exactly how far it manages to take that concept. As I’d mentioned in the review of Sidekicks – it is rare to find a superpower that hasn’t been done to death, and there are some interesting applications here of super intelligence. For example, there is the pro football player who is impossible to tackle because he knows where everybody is going to be ten seconds from now…and is somewhere else.

Cooper’s talent is that he is a Reader – so good at picking up on people’s non-verbal cues that he can practically tell what they’re thinking, and always tell when they’re lying, which makes him very good at his job working for the government hunting down super smart terrorists. The trick is – how do you catch somebody that is so smart that they can predict the future with near perfect accuracy?

After a bit of a slow start, Brilliance picks up speed and starts taking twists and turns that point to something darker going on in a near future America where being the smartest guy in the room may not be enough to keep you alive.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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