Review: Seven Wonders

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Seven Wonders
Adam Christopher
Angry Robot

(cover artwork to Seven Wonders by Will Staehle, who also did the cover for Adam’s Empire State, published Angry Robot)

So long ago, certain place, certain time
You touched my hand, all the way, all the way down to Emmiline
But if our paths never cross, well you know I’m sorry but…
If I live to see the seven wonders
I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end
I’ll never live to match the beauty again
The rainbow’s end.” Fleetwood Mac, Seven Wonders

Back at the very start of this year, when I posted my own Best of the Year selection at the end of our weeks-long series of traditional guest slots, in the books section I also flagged up a couple of then-forthcoming science fiction works I thought we should all have been looking to read in 2012. One of those, released right at the start of the year, was Empire State by Adam Christopher, a cracking fusion of the gumshoe noir and a wonderfully 40s styled science fiction, complete with ‘scientific superheroes’ with rocket boots and 40s style power armour, police airships and parallel worlds. Stylish, cool, utterly engrossing, I loved it, but don’t just take my word for it, one of our guest Best of Year posters, Paul Cornell no less, showered praise on it. And here in the last quarter of the same year we have a second novel from Adam coming from the cool Angry Robot gang. And it’s even better.

Adam had science-based superheroes as characters in Empire State, very much in the 1930s/40s Republic serial film style with a nice touch of Rocketeer (never a bad thing). In Seven Wonders, however, he gets to indulge in his obvious love for full-on capes and tights superheroes we know so well – in fact the titular Seven Wonders are the last remaining superteam, operating out of their impressive skyscraper base in San Ventura, the ‘shining city’ on the Californian coast. Also the only city still to be home to a supervillain, The Cowl, and his female sidekick, Blackbird. Despite a team of seven, lead by the nuclear powered Aurora’s Light (it should just be Aurora, but a particularly sneaky former villain trademarked that name so now, legally, he can’t use it), the Cowl remains at large – foiled sometimes, yet always remaining free to terrorise the city, inspiring many street gangs who daub themselves in his insignia and ruin entire neighbourhoods.

Quite why this entire team can’t bring the Cowl in, much less end the gang violence his terror inspires, is beyond some, including one city detective on the supercrime beat, Sam (especially driven after her husband’s death because of the Cowl; the inability of the Seven Wonders to stop that means she has little time for them either) and an ordinary bloke, Tony. The lives of villains, heroes, detective and Tony are going to intersect soon though, and in a very interesting way. Especially when Tony finds himself starting to manifest superpowers of his own.

Encouraged by his new girlfriend Jeannie he begins testing his abilities and powers – bulletproof? Superstrength? Flight? Superspeed? With her support and suggestions he decides he should use his new powers to become a superhero – and do what the Seven Wonders, for many years, mysteriously keep failing to do and take down the Cowl. Hard. Show them how it is done. Be a hero in front of the whole city’s adoring gaze.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as he thinks – yes, there are reasons why the Cowl and the Seven Wonders have some bizarre stand-off relationship which leaves them as the only superhero-supervillain show on Earth (the other heroes are largely retired, the villains in a secret UN prison somewhere). And yes, they do play mind games and strike poses for public effect. But there’s a lot more to being a true superhero than the spandex and being able to hold a stylish, photo-opportunity pose when landing from flight, and Tony is going to learn that, the hard way.

But that’s not all, not by a long shot. I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much, but Adam starts with a hugely enjoyable but seemingly predictable tale – superheroes who are more show than practical use, new average bloke gets powers, becomes real hero. That’s how it looks like it is going to go. But it isn’t. Adam starts to veer away sharply from the predictable route, the clear cut morals of superhero versus supervillain roles very quickly becoming muddied by real world concerns shoved messily into comic book fantasy. And then he turns it again with a whole new twist which then leads to another development which seems to grow out of nowhere, until you realise he actually hinted very delicately quite early on, planting subtle seeds that grow into a third act which goes as widescreen as any major DC or Marvel crossover ‘event’ comic, in an ever escalating spiral of tense action.

It’s terrifically enjoyable throughout – the characters all pay homage to genre clichés (the chiselled, remote superhero leader, the spandex clad beautiful superwoman character, the driven detective with a chip on her shoulder) and yet those are there as embellishments, each of them has real characteristics woven in too, and the generic elements, well they are there to give the colour and feel of a superhero comic but in prose. And it is clear from the details Adam uses how much he loves the capes and tights tales – even the most generic elements and characteristics he uses to sometimes poke fun at the OTT nature of superhero stories are handled with a light touch and with obvious love for the classics of the genre; any mockery of the more outlandish elements of superhero tales is gentle and good-natured. It’s a real three act story that you think you know where it is going, before it changes on you several times, keeping you hooked right through to the end, inventive and sparkling, with details and references for the geeks among us to spot and enjoy (and we know we like that!) . And above all – above all, like a good superhero story should be, it’s pure fun, right from the get-go (starting with a fun prologue where the word ‘wonders’ spells out the different team members and their powers in a bit of homage to SHAZAM).

I can tell you this is a cracking read for any fan of SF or superhero tales. I can tell you it has garnered praise from luminaries like Greg Rucka. But perhaps the simplest and most effective recommendation I can make is this: I read a lot of books each year and within ten months I’ve made time to read two by Adam in my crowded reading schedule. And both will be making my next Best of Year list. Read it, enjoy it. And mark Adam Christopher down as a new writer you should be watching out for. I have.