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: We’ve Got the Powers, Part II

When the topic is superheroes, you can always expect a sequel, and this column is no exception. So in lieu of a slew of summer blockbusters, here are a few books to tide you over.

So if you like:

Young adult novels
Superheroes with complicated morality
Strong female protagonists
Seeing the outcome of an all out superpowered war

You might like

Renegades, by Marissa Meyer

Overview

Years after supervillians were decisively beaten, the world is still trying to recover. Raised by villains, Nova is poised to be their instrument of vengeance but hits an obstacle when she discovers she likes the people she is sworn to destroy.

Sample passage

“It’s okay,” said the boy. “I can fix it.”

“Fix it?” She tried to snatch the bracelet away from him, but he pulled back. “You don’t understand. That bracelet, it isn’t … it’s…”

“No, trust me,” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a fine-tip black marker. “This wrist, right?” He wrapped the bracelet around Nova’s wrist, and again, the sensation of such a rare, unexpected touch made her freeze.

Holding the bracelet with one hand, he uncapped the marker with his teeth and bent over her wrist. He began to draw onto her skin, in the space between the two ends of the broken bracelet. Nova stared at the drawing—two small links connecting the filigree and, between them, a delicate clasp, surprisingly ornate for a drawing made in marker, and perfectly matched to the style of the bracelet.

When he had finished, the boy capped the pen using his teeth again, then brought her wrist up closer to his face. He blew—a soft, barely there breath across the inside of her wrist that sent goose bumps racing up her arm.

The drawing came to life, rising up out of her skin and taking physical shape. The links merged with the ends of the bracelet, until Nova could not tell where the real bracelet ended and the forged clasp began.

Nova twisted her hand back and forth. The clasp held.

The boy’s smile took on a subtle edge of pride.

Obviously a prodigy. But was he also …

“Renegade?” she asked, making little effort to keep the suspicion from her tone.

She took a step back. “I have to go.” She turned on her heel and pushed her way through a group of costumed Renegade supporters.

“Renegade trials, next week!” one of them said, shoving a piece of paper at her. “Open to the public! Come one, come all!”

Nova crumpled the flyer in her hand without looking at it and crammed it into her pocket. Behind her, she heard the boy yelling, “You’re welcome!”

Takeaway

In Renegades, the setting of a world where super villains destroyed most of everything before the heroes (the titular Renegades ) won allows for serious examination of the moral quandaries Nova finds herself in. Should there be limits to personal freedom? If superheroes are running everything, why should ordinary people have to lift a finger? And if they are running things, who’s going to hold them accountable? Things are more complex here than the usual black and white, good vs evil narratives one would expect in a superhero story. Nova’s mission to destroy the Renegades is complicated when she discovers she really likes one of them, and is constantly having to choose between him and her adopted family. There’s a will they/won’t they tension that runs the length of the book as Nova has to decide where her loyalties lie, and it doesn’t all get wrapped up here, as Renegades the first book of a trilogy. Still if you’re looking for a young adult maybe romance in a well thought out post crisis superhero dominated world that implies a lot of things are afoot behind the scenes, give Renegades a read.

Or if you like

Superheroes as celebrities
Exploring the practicalities of being a caped crusader
Making a comeback
Alan Moore’s Watchmen
Peter Cline’s Ex-Heroes series

You might like

In Hero Years… I’m Dead, by Michael Stackpole

Overview

Our protagonist returns to the city where he fought crime twenty years ago, and discovers both that things have changed, and that being a hero is a young man’s game.

Sample passage

The old man remained oblivious to our conversation. He laboriously inscribed two pictures: one of him standing in Berlin, shaking hands with a Soviet hero on the smoking ruins of the Reichstag; the other a head and shoulders shot from the early 50s. His hand shook, but he finished with a flourish.

I went for two twenties, then just pulled out a Reagan. “Here.”

“It’s only ten per, sir. He’s just a ten-buck hero.”

I added another one. “Not in my book.”

Takeaway

This was an interesting take on the genre, where heroes are treated like professional athletes, from being past their prime years, to everybody betting on fantasy leagues while heroes and villains battle it out in the city. The world and its inhabitants were well thought out, and the story is driven by the protagonist’s past being slowly revealed as he interacts with acquaintances old and new, while trying to adjust to giving up the cape once and for all…that is, if the city will let him.

Or if you like

Strong female protagonists
Magic
Vampires
Charles Stross’ Laundry novels

You might like

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, by James Alan Gardner

Overview

In a world where superheroes and creatures of dark magic coexist, a new all female superhero team has to rise to the occasion.

Sample passage

The detective stayed deadpan, despite my talk of portals. Our world has had Darklings for more than thirty years, and the Light for over a decade. Bizarre shit happens.

On the other hand, every crook in the world invents far-out lies to blame their crimes on supernatural weirdness. “I was mind-controlled!” “Possessed by demons!” “A supervillain broke it, then ran away!”

I don’t envy the police their jobs. Someone says, “This was done by otherworldly forces,” and almost always, it’s bullshit. But one time out of a thousand, if you don’t take it seriously, a million people get eaten by alien sludge worms.

Takeaway

Gardner’s style here is firmly rooted in modern pop culture. Although the characters are somewhat stereotypically drawn college students, this plays well in a universe where the forces of light and darkness force their minions to follow certain tropes. The narrow escape, the unlikely coincidence, and of course, the monologuing have to happen because all that comes with the powers. The power to be an eternal creature of the night (if you’re rich enough) or the power to be a superhero (if you’re lucky enough). Either way, it all works if you don’t look at it too closely. The protagonist, Kim, and her friends get their powers when a mad scientist’s project goes somewhat awry, and while they’re figuring out their powers, they also have to figure out what role a cabal of ghosts, demons and vampires has in opening portals to other dimensions before mass murder takes place. While I found the narrator’s asides about various aspects of her world kind of distracted from the narrative, Gardner has built a world that seems like it’s way too much on paper (Superman VS. Dracula!) it holds together well on it’s own internal logic and the fight scenes are certainly entertaining.

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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