For my day job I am doing some work in the comics industry, so I am on a bit of a superhero kick at the moment. I have read a few superhero novels over the years, but it seems to be a genre that is starting to expand, as I presume that these stories have historically been contained within comics. It is surprising to me that that the genre isn’t more popular with the rise of superheroes in pop culture, but who knows, maybe the book wave is just starting. Along those lines, I decided to pick up Ex-Heroes, by Peter Cline, first because of its awesome naming convention of “EX” before each title in the series and second because it is about superheroes vs. zombies.
The premise of Ex-Heroes is that a meteor hit the earth and a whole bunch of people woke up one day with superpowers. Interestingly, there weren’t many super villains and heroes mostly stuck to cleaning up drug cartels, gangs, and petty crime. That is until a death plague hit, turning 99% of the population into zombies. Now all that is left of humanity is small bastions that are holding out against the plague – many with superpowered guardians. Our story follows a small cohort of heroes holed up with a thousand civilians in an old movie studio in Hollywood. The book deals with all the classic plot lines in a post apocalyptic world that revolve around anarchy and discovering the source and cure of the virus, with some nice superhero flavoring to mix it up. The lead protagonist is the Mighty Dragon, a hero with low level flight, super strength, and a little bit of pyrokinesis – giving him a suite of powers to emulate a dragon if that was not clear.
While I usually start with book pros, and then move to cons, I am going to mix it up as this book has one gaping problem that sinks it – the oversexualization (and general treatment) of women. It is bad, REALLY bad. Two top of mind examples of this issue: first one of the female leads is introduced as a girl who “wears shirts that are sizes too small so that you can clearly see her brightly colored bras underneath” as her one defining characteristic, and a second female protagonist feels she is cursed with the power of being too hot, so she hides her face so as to not be objectified all the time. To clarify, she doesn’t have a superpower that makes her hot, she is just so hot that people have bent to her will her whole life and she doesn’t like people not taking her seriously. I am not a Puritan from the 1650’s, but most of the female characters had absolutely no substance to them other than sex appeal, which is a problem. I almost feel like this was a satire that is just flying over my head, because the treatment of women in this book sucked the joy out of me like some sort of psychic vampire. This is a shame because the book is great in lots of other ways.
The characters (except for Stealth, the hot woman mentioned before) are interesting, with unique backgrounds and stories that kept me invested. The book alternates between backstories of the heroes and present day between chapters, and uses the backstories to explain how the death plague came about in the first place. It is a really good storytelling mechanic that worldbuilds effectively while also staying fun and captivating. The action is well written and and the plot has some good twists that made me want to read the next book despite the women problem.
Ex-Heroes can be a lot of fun if you can look past the terrible treatment of women in the book. However, I would not be surprised if it was too much to move past for any individual reader. If you like superheroes and zombies and aren’t bothered by terrible female characters, you might enjoy Ex-Heroes, but if you are looking for something that empowered women in ways that aren’t sexual I would look elsewhere. I myself am going to check out the sequel in the hopes that Clines addresses the women issue so the series can really shine.
Rating: Ex-Heroes – 6.0/10