In seventh grade, Shannon—one of the popular girls—told a story about buying a fish at Petco with a friend and immediately dumping it onto the pavement. She and her friend felt bad for the fish after doing this, so they filled cups of water and splashed the fish occasionally to extend its miserable final moments (rather than, y’know, putting it in a bowl). I recalled this story from my childhood as I read John Scalzi’s Starter Villain. I promise it will make sense soon.
Charlie Fitzer is down on his luck. Laid off from his job, he lives in his late father’s old house. His siblings ravenously seek the payout that would come with selling said house, but Charlie resists, even as he tries to use the abode as collateral for a business loan. He substitute teaches in Barrington, Illinois, and generally wallows in directionlessness. Then his estranged uncle Jake dies, and Charlie inherits his parking garage business. That business is a front for Uncle Jake’s real job: villain. Thrust into a world he doesn’t understand—replete with volcano lairs, talking cats, and genetically engineered dolphin spies—Charlie is forced to reckon with his uncle’s legacy and confront billionaires set on killing him and/or thwarting his newly-owned businesses.
A brief peek at Goodreads reviews of Starter Villain will quickly reveal the repeated use of a single phrase: “fish out of water.” Here’s the problem with taking a fish out of water: the fish will die. Such is the case with Charlie in his new, villain-populated world. He desperately needs a Shannon to splash water on him. In Starter Villain, Charlie’s “Shannon” is Matilda Morrison, his late uncle’s right-hand woman. Matilda rescues Charlie from early assassination attempts and constantly splashes water on him in the form of lore dumps.
The fish out of water story doesn’t fit the style John Scalzi is attempting to write. Charlie’s complete lack of awareness makes the book feel like a story happening around him. He—the fish—is flopping around aimlessly while more powerful people splash him with narrative water. In the few moments where he has any sort of agency, he shines, but the novel’s ending (full of splashes of explanative lore) undoes most of the progress Charlie makes in the week or so during which the story takes place.
The concept is solid, but the delivery feels off. A lot of the jokes are overly explained by the characters that tell them, and the prose and dialogue feel clunky. Sometimes Scalzi uses ten words where three will do, and it’s easy to stumble on the awkward sentences. I read a galley copy, so I’m hopeful some of these transgressions will be tightened up in the final publication.
When I finished Starter Villain, I wished it had been Matilda’s story. I’m far more interested in a first mate taking over operations and finding her own place in a villainous world than Charlie’s layman perspective on everything. The story—full of twists I won’t spoil—could’ve remained gloriously intact with a more captivating point of view.
My structural problems with the story knocked some points off my final score, but I enjoyed a few things enough to finish the book. First, Scalzi’s interpretation of a villain slots neatly into the current cultural zeitgeist. In Starter Villain, the actual villainy at play is greed. The story reads as a takedown of capitalism. There are a few delightful scenes in which Scalzi uses hopeful finance startup bros as punching bags for the billionaire villains. Charlie’s experience reporting on the business world plays nicely into this aspect of the story. It leads to a few of the aforementioned moments of growth and achievement for our otherwise water-less fish. Plus, there are sentient cats.
Scalzi’s Starter Villain, despite its issues, doesn’t overstay its welcome. The book is fewer than 300 pages long, and it has all the trappings of a quick and fun-ish story. I wish the story didn’t require regular doses of splashed water to keep our protagonist fish alive, but others may enjoy Charlie’s bumbling journey through his cutthroat world.
Rating: Starter Villain – 6.0/10