Bystander 27 – by Rik Hoskin (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Superheroes

Angry Robot; August 11, 2020

356 pages (PB)

2.9 / 5 ✪

Goodreads

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

I’d class this as Punisher crossed with the Reckoners, but I’m not much of a comics guy so there could well be a closer match. There’s a heavy superhero/comic influence, mixed with a science-fiction/alternate world setting, and a bit of a mystery thrown in. It’s a curious combination—one that I feel could’ve been an amazing read when done right. While Bystander 27 did quite a few things right, it was far from perfect. Let’s get into it.

Ex-SEAL Jon Hayes has never felt so small.

With the Navy he’d served multiple tours all around the globe, battling terrorists in the Middle East and chasing cartels in South America. He returned to the States and married his dream girl, Melanie, before moving to New York to start their life together. But for a man who’d toured all around the globe New York might as well be a different world.

For New York is where the ‘Costumes’ hang out. Superpowered heroes and baddies overrun the place, battling it out in the streets on a daily basis. For the residents, it’s just a fact of life; pollution is annoying, traffic always terrible, and the costumes are out to play. Like the rest, Hayes does his best to ignore it, but is generally wowed along with the rest when the heroes take center stage.

Until Melanie is caught in the crossfire. She—along with their unborn child—is killed in a clash between Captain Light and the Jade Shade.

As Hayes struggles to come to terms with the loss, he uncovers a mystery at the center of the Costumes conspiracy. Deeper and deeper he digs, until the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur. But as Hayes pieces the mystery together, he must decide whether he’s after just the truth of the matter, or vengeance for his fallen family.

So… I’m really torn on this one. Bystander 27 does a lot of things right; it combines a compelling mystery with an action-packed thriller, a heavy does of science fiction, and a tangible sense of urgency—all within the head of a man overcome by grief, his life slowly descending into madness as his chase takes him down the rabbit hole. While it’s a fairly slow build, I never had trouble reading it. The mystery—it’s a good one—kept me interested until the very end, where everything kinda goes to hell. And while I absolutely hated the conclusion, I very much liked the epilogue tacked on the end. The thing is, Jon Hayes is a pretty good protagonist. He’s a bit ordinary, bland, and forgettable in the beginning, but that makes his character development all the more impressive. He literally goes from just another face in the crowd to an unforgettable piece of the puzzle. You know the puzzles that have one piece shaped like an apple? That’s Hayes. He’s an apple.

No matter how many things it does right, Bystander 27 is constantly in its own way. The fascinating mystery at the forefront is countered by a slow build and just strange language. Jon Hayes—who’s in his early 30’s—talks like a man from the mid-twentieth century. “Son of a gun”, flakes with hypno-discs and popguns”, and “punk kids on their way to band camp” highlight some of my favorites. It’s not used to replace anything explicit—the author still uses plenty of that—it’s just like something out of the fifties. Or a comic. Or a comic from the fifties. The language is… just strange.

The author is also constantly reminding us that Hayes was a SEAL. I mean, CONSTANTLY. I can understand the references to it in the beginning and at certain times that relate to backstory, but we’re reminded of Hayes’ SEAL training at least once a chapter through the first hundred pages. After that it drops off a bit only to pick up again, so that we’re still being told about his SEAL training past page 300.

The book’s conclusion—which I won’t talk much about—is unoriginal at best, and clichéd at the worst. That said, I liked the epilogue. Way more than the conclusion to the story, in fact.

The last thing I want to harp on is 9/11. It’s mentioned as the reason Hayes joined the Navy. In a world where superheroes have roamed downtown New York, Manhattan in particular, since the mid-Sixties, how exactly is 9/11 still a thing? Worse, it establishes the time of the story. I might’ve accepted the language being as it is in a story set before the seventies. But as a post-9/11 thing? Nope.

TL;DR

Something like a cross between the Punisher and Reckoners, or the novelization of a superhero comic book, Bystander 27 does a lot of things right. Possessive of a intricate mystery and very real character development, I never thought about giving up on it. Unfortunately, with a slow pace, dated if not odd language, and a clichéd ending—the book constantly made me question my decision not to bin it. At the end of the day Bystander 27 just can’t get out of its own way. And while it legitimately contains a good, even provocative story, in the end it just doesn’t deliver.

Book Review: Ex-Heroes – by Peter Clines

Ex-Heroes #1

Scifi, Zombies, Superpowers, Post-Apocalytic

Broadway Books; February 25, 2010

310 pages

4 / 5 ✪

I’ve been after Ex-Heroes for a while. I mean, zombies + superpowers + apocalypse = well, I suppose it’d be a bad thing, but for the reading of it, I’d say it’s all good. Peter Clines debut features all the big names of a world that has succumbed to chaos: Stealth, Gorgon, Regenerator, Zzzap, the Mighty Dragon, Cerberus. Essentially they represent the last, best hope for mankind. The rest comprises gangs, outcasts, and somewhere around 99% Exes (the pretty-much-zombies).

When the infection began it was expected to be mopped up in a week. After months of fighting, however, and the fall of the eastern seaboard, the heroes were left with little in the way of allies. The fall of the government, the army followed, and the last vestiges of civility set up shop in LA—transforming the area of several film studios/locations into “The Mount”, their final stronghold against the hordes.

A year into the apocalypse things are looking bleak. The South Seventeens have stepped up their attempts to take down The Mount. Ammo is running thin. Patrols into the city are bringing back not only essential supplies, but also news of more. Exes acting strangely. Roadblocks and traps. And more worrying, sightings of previous heroes; those that once bitten, succumbed to the Ex plague. Now they are little more than shamblers themselves. Albeit totally badass, superpowered ones. And all the while, it seems the South Seventeens have been consolidating power.

This was a pretty good read.

I mean, it went by quick: only about 300 pages, took me about a week as I was reading two other things at the time. A straightforward plot with little surprises, a little mystery, and mostly packed with fight scenes and dark realism. Not surprisingly St. George (the Mighty Dragon) stood out as the character I enjoyed the most. After him… probably a tie. Between Zzzap or Cerberus. But St. George… yeah, the dude has superpowers, but he’s as human as the rest beneath it all. Though he’s pretty much unkillable, he bears the emotional and psychological scars of survivor’s guilt. Of everything he’s seen go to shit over the years. And still he tries to be better. And maintains that the people around him—even the other heroes—should do the same.

The story features a back-and-forth between past and present, with each glimpse of the past taken through the eyes of one of the heroes. Their origin story, the outbreak of the plague, the fall of civilization, how The Mount came to be—I can’t say they weren’t interesting flashbacks. And yet they leave a lot to be desired. Somewhere between ending to soon and taking to long to begin again. It’s not like some other books (Porcelain Blade) where there’s a flashback every other chapter. They appear now and then, but usually don’t remain for too long. Interesting snippets of lore, yet little more.

I really don’t have anything all that bad to say about Ex-Heroes, except that it was over too quick, and possessive of nothing terribly life-altering. I will say the opposing gang had a very unfortunate name (the SS? Not the best choice). The concept was good, combining the zombie apocalypse with superhero fiction, two tried and true genres. But as a book, it wasn’t anything special, either. A good read with some interesting (although not very developed) characters and a straightforward plot with gentle twists.

Not a super complex story here. I mean, it ain’t winning any awards. But even so, it was a quick, entertaining read. And I’d definitely be interested in seeing where Clines takes the series from here. Hopefully he develops the characters more. Explores the pre-collapsed world. And some more post-fall locations. This book begins a pentalogy—a five-piece series. Ex-Heroes is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Ex-Heroes series continues with Ex-Patriots, released in 2011.

Note: I couldn’t find this at my local library (I live in a nowhere-adjacent locale), but managed to score a copy on the cheap. Think I paid about $4 for it, used. While I’d whole-heartily recommend supporting the author and buying a new copy, if you’re on a budget: Ex-Heroes has been out since 2010. There’re bound to be more than a couple used copies lying about. That you can pick up, for a good price. Or, if you can get to at your library, do! Libraries are great like that.