The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Great Power comes with Great Responsibility - especially during the Zombie Apocalpyse (review of Ex-Heroes by Richard Clines)

Peter Clines
Permuted Press 2010 

Sometimes you read for inspiration, sometimes for education. Sometimes you read for the sheer joy of reading and sometimes – not often, but sometimes – you read because zombies and superheroes are awesome. Peter Clines's Ex-Heroes picks up two of the predominant memes in recent pop culture and mashes them together into a fast-paced pulp page-turner which reads remarkably like a movie and is over almost as quickly. It's unashamedly brain candy but it's executed so well that there's none of the guilty 'watcher's remorse' which follows an ill-advised snap decision to watch a Michael Bay movie which just happened to be on TV.

Ex-Heroes, being a zombie yarn, takes place in a ruined facsimile of the world we know. Mankind has been brought to its knees by the hungry hordes of the undead, the infrastructure on which we've become utterly dependent is destroyed and the future looks bleak. Our immediate locale is Paramount Studios (seriously), now reinforced and refashioned as 'The Mount', a last-stand holdout playing host to a handful of LA's survivors. Protected by a few military personnel and a ragtag militia, the denizens of The Mount live day to day through their own resources and cunning and aided by regular scavenger trips outside the confines of their camp.

They do have some help though. Superheroes. That's right, this is no ordinary post-apocalypse. Through regular flashbacks in the text we learn of the rise of a new breed of hero, vigilante warriors such as Gorgon, The Mighty Dragon, Regenerator and Zzzap who find themselves blessed with extraordinary powers and, as tradition dictates, proceed to become a thorn in the side of criminals everywhere. At least till the zombies come at any rate. Unfortunately superpowers are no guarantee of safety when it comes to the walking dead and soon several of humanity's protectors find themselves shambling shadows of their former selves (and deservedly so in one amusing case).

As if it wasn't bad enough having to deal with a plague of brain-eaters, some with godlike abilities, and the terrors of living in a planet-wide disaster zone there are other troubles on the horizon for our band of survivors. They're not the only ones who made it and it seems that fortune favours the wicked as well as the good. Nearby the remnant of a former LA gang have been recruiting and casting their jealous eye on the security and comforts of The Mount. Not only do the criminal element bear a hearty grudge against one of The Mount's guardians but they have a sinister secret up their sleeves, one which may soon spell the end for the studio-bound community.

Ex-Heroes is split into alternating sections, helpfully labelled 'Now' and 'Then'. The meat of the story unfolds now and is narrated in third person, giving us a god's-eye perspective on all the events as they unfold. Between chapters we ski back to 'Then' for a series of novel and enjoyable origin stories tracing the genesis both of the superheroes and the disaster itself. These sections are necessarily brief but each manages to develop the characters remarkably quickly, explaining the tensions which give rise to later conflicts in the 'Now' sections.

Peter Clines manages to achieve something in Ex-Heroes which is rather rare in zombie novels and movies – an explanation of the outbreak which is both original and doesn't have you laughing out of sheer disbelief. By melding the superhero aspect with old-fashioned zombie lore he achieves a synthesis of the two which will keep fans of both genres happy without straining credulity (or without straining it too much, it is superhero zombies after all). The heroes themselves all retain strong personalities and their own all-too-human issues which allows for interesting plot development and keeps the book from wandering into a rut. By mixing all these ingredients and adding the twin foes of the zombies and the threatening gang there is no opportunity for the storytelling to drag at all.

Unfortunately juggling all of this content does mean that something must be sacrificed. At times Ex-Heroes can seem a little superficial and rushed, neglecting any real depth in favour of keeping up the adrenaline levels. The sharp reader will pick up on a few plot holes lurking in the background and the motives of the characters leading to some of the major events in the book can seem questionable and a little contradictory.

However, this book makes no claim to literary sophistication and instead sticks to its job – sheer entertainment. On those grounds it is highly successful and it's diffficult to pick fault with a tale told with such relish. Peter Clines has crafted a tale which can be enjoyed by genre fans of all ages as well as casual readers out for a spot of quick-fire action and some laughs along the way. His snarky style, pop culture references and the glee with which he desecrates the remains of Hollywood and the celebrity world will find a lot of fans and I can only hope the two sequels can keep the pace up.

And for the record, I so want to be Cerberus...

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Ex-Heroes is available now. And seriously, can you think of a reason NOT to read it?

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