“If only there was some sort of agreed upon standard for how we should assess books based on their covers.” — Tenth Justice
People have been recommending Larry Correia’s books to me for at least a year now, but I’d never gotten around to checking them out. This particular series never looked that interesting to me, but now that the third installment is nominated for a Hugo Award this year, I went ahead to dropped five bucks for the Kindle edition. What’s it about? Superheroes punching each other. Also guns. Lots of guns. And explosions. And gigantic magical zeppelins. There is so much action here that I when got half way through the book, I actually could not imagine how the author could possibly have been saving anything back for the climax, much less for later books in the series.
If you enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s Wildcards series, John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, or the the first season of Heroes, then you’ll be right at home here. Instead of beginning the alternate history in WWII for nostalgia’s sake, Correia allows powers to begin to appear during the 19th century. As in the movie Push, each Active has access to one general ability: a Traveler can teleport, a Heavy can control gravity, and Torch can create and control fire, and so on. What’s particularly enjoyable here is that he’s explored how governments would respond to the emergence of a significant percentage of superpowered individuals. War and espionage have their obvious applications, but we also get to see how these abilities impact industry and society in general. This is especially enjoyable because comics tend to be set in a sort of perpetual present with supervillians and superscience mostly failing to influence history and economics in any significant way.
I like the characters for the most part. At some point, so many are introduced that I had trouble keeping up with them, but the main protagonists are likable enough. The banter is punchy and the book is a real page-turner. The book’s three plot threads are well paced and well engineered. A lesser author would have lost control of the story… or lost me. The only thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with were the romantic elements. While it’s not as ham handed as the Neo/Trinity relationship we see in the Matrix movies– “insert romance here… because every epic needs a bit of that sort of thing”– it’s still sort of a cursory treatment. The descriptions of the firearms are actually penned with greater tenderness…!
Given that Correia has been something of a lightening rod as of late, it’s reasonable to want to know how he handles various political issues here. Well, there are no rousing speeches. There is no overt attempt to persuade the reader to a particular point of view. There are no paper-thin allegories to current hot topics. The worst thing I can think of on this point is that a character mentions that he thinks the New Deal is no different than Marxism. Other characters are frustrated by the American isolationism of the period. While there are no openly gay characters, the cast is nearly gender balanced. (Superpowers, guns, and ninja training make for fairly potent equalizers.) The main character is so far from being racist that he actually was sent to prison for killing a sheriff that was intent on lynching a black person. The only reason anyone might accuse this work of being political would be because it fails to loudly proclaim anyone’s preferred talking points.
It’s very difficult for me to read this book without mentally composing its corresponding GURPS supplement as I flip the pages. I know that Larry Correia has been associated more with Hero System up until now (see this Kickstarter… or here on his blog for recent plugs) but everything described here meshes perfectly with the typical GURPS way of doing things. Each major ability type can be assigned their own set of advantages, just like in GURPS Powers. While you’d normally be limited to a single power type in this setting, an unusual background might allow you to dip into closely related powers on a limited basis… but probably only with character points earned in the course of play. The text indicates that skill will matter a lot… and a lot of the special tricks could be classified as techniques whose penalties can be bought off over time. Use of these abilities require tapping into a separate power reserve rather than just getting exercised for free or coming out of fatigue. The way I read it, extra effort should be able to buy additional enhancements on the fly fairly liberally… but the costs should force most characters to have to rely on their guns until they can rest up again.
Oh, in addition to the superpowers there’s a new magic system here that would be built entirely with stuff just from the Basic Set. Different groups of advantages can be acquired by getting tatoos of various glyphs. I’m not sure if the number of these you can get should be based on some other attribute or if you have to make a health and/or a power roll each time you get one in order to determine whether or not you can handle more. There’s more techno-magic type things hinted at in the text, but getting the most common “kanji” worked out should be a trivial task for most GURPS game masters.
I enjoyed this book a lot. If it’s dealing with your favorite genres then this is sure to be an enjoyable read– if you can handle the nonstop action. If you like vintage guns, then this book was made for you. There are dozens of cinematic bullet time sequences condensed down into the written word here. History buffs will be amused with the many cameo appearances that are worked into the general background of the tale… and people that are tired of insane Nazi’s taking over the world all the time will finally get to see a magically empowered Imperial Japan on the loose here. This is solid gaming fiction and extremely entertaining stuff.