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Book Review: Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

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I picked up this book because I'm a sucker for two things (that I'm going to mention anyway). One, I'm an unreformed comic book kid and, two, I love alternate points of view. I have always been attracted to things which treat the status-quo from a slightly different angle. In the end, though, I am left feeling conflicted. On the one hand, it was a fun read, but on the other hand I think it fell well short of its potential.

What we have here is essentially a prose comic book, with the narration alternating between the villain and one of the heroes. The interesting bit, of course, is that Grossman is working with entirely new characters. It's not as though he was looking at a series and funneling it into a novel, which has been done without success so far as I've seen. Instead, he presents an Earth seemingly bursting with super-powered humans, aliens, and robots. There is a celebrity culture about many of them, and one even has an agent. It's almost treated like a career choice, as several of the heroes are powered by chemical or mechanical implants. It's a total geek scenario to imagine that anyone of of us could manufacture our own origin story and become a superpowered version of ourselves, but entertaining nonetheless (I would be Gravitron, by the way, master of the unseen force of attraction).

The villain, one Doctor Impossible, is much more interesting as a narrator than Fatale, the cyborg hero. He has a slightly ironic, tongue-in-cheek voice when he ruminates over the course of his life. He frequently discusses the futility of being a super-villain, but almost approaches it with an 'it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it' attitude. He remembers fondly some of his best schemes which just didn't come off, everything from time travel to a giant city-smashing robot (robots are kind of his thing). It's during these meditations, however, that I think Grossman really missed an opportunity to do something great.

Time and again, as Impossible starts to get metaphysical, he pulls up just short of a meaningful conclusion. Rather than using the character as a vehicle for commentary on heroism, or comic books for that matter, Grossman keeps the discussion right at surface level. I was constantly disappointed by this too, because I always felt the trajectory of the Doctor's thoughts were headed somewhere profound. Instead, they always seemed to crash into a punchline. While I suppose that could be reflective of his constant failure to take over the world, I think it ended up just shortchanging the character.

Fatale, the book's other narrator, did little other than move the plot forward. I was pleasantly surprised at first that Grossman picked a less than traditional hero-type to contrast with a pretty standard evil genius, but the farther I read the more disenchanted I was with the decision. Fatale was severely underdeveloped as a character. By her own admission she is uncomfortable in her own skin and so, as a reader, I simply couldn't settle down into her narration the way I did with Doctor Impossible. There are several strands of her story which never really go anywhere. When the reader meets her, she's a B or C list hero who has been called up to join the elite Champions super group. How she landed on the Champions' radar is never fully explained, nor do we get any conclusion on a budding romance between her and the character Blackwolf.

Likewise, there are questions about her origin which are raised and have the potential to go interesting places, but lose steam by the end of the novel. As the secondary narrator, she is thrown into immediate juxtaposition with Doctor Impossible, yet there is little to no conflict between the two in the plot. I would think that if you are going to divide a novel's story between two tellers of opposing persuasion, there should be some sort of showdown in the story to establish final dominance. Otherwise, one narrator is suborned to the other by virtue of who gets the final chapter, which is Doctor Impossible in this case.

My biggest cognitive conflict came not from the narrators, but the superheroes who surrounded them. I loved the characters Grossman creates, even though some of their powers were a little vague. The shadowy, yet debonair Mister Mystic, the magical fairy-warrior Elphin, and the beastly Feral all add just the right diversity and comic book appeal. At the same time, there were characters so transparent it seemed lazy. The Champions are pretty clearly the Justice League. Blackwolf, a normal human with great athletic ability and untold wealth, ought to be living in Gotham City. Meanwhile, CoreFire, Doctor Impossible's completely indestructible nemesis, is Superman with blond hair. He even has heat vision and a reporter girlfriend. At first I thought the rampant similarities were leading to some sort of satire or commentary, but then the story kept pushing on, full of pale shadows of the DC universe.

One of my favorite movies of the last few years was The Incredibles. It presents an alternative comic book world which is familiar enough to permit easy entry to the outsider, but it is also creatively independent. The characters, though there is precedent for their powers, are developed into their identities. Moreover, it contains genre-related introspection which arrives at a definable conclusion. None of that can be said of Soon I Will Be Invincible. It shows great promise in all those avenues, and was a truly fun read much of the time, making me laugh and keeping me hooked in the story often enough. At the end of the day, though, I've seen this before and I've seen it done better. According to a post made on his Goodreads page, Grossman is working on a sequel. I sincerely hope he develops these characters beyond the superficial and takes them as far as they seem capable of going.

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