Peter Clines is a fiction writer who lives near Hollywood and whose day job revolves around film journalism. At first glance, therefore, the fact that his debut novel, ‘Ex-Heroes’, is a mash-up of super-heroes and zombies may not sound very original, since these are two of the most popular genres for blockbuster films at the moment. However, Clines has managed to create something fresh and fun here, taking readers’ expectations and twisting them in interesting new directions.
We join the story in late 2010, just over a year after the start of the zombie apocalypse. A group of super-heroes have converted a former Hollywood film studio into a well-defended fortress and refuge, where a thousand people are sheltering from the horde of ex-human zombies or so-called exes outside.
While they’re inside the fortress, called The Mount because it was formerly Paramount Studios, they’re relatively safe since the exes are pretty stupid. Their problems start when a number of them leave The Mount on one of their regular scavenging missions, searching the abandoned suburbs of Los Angeles for food, fuel, weapons or anything else that may be useful. When Mark, one of the human search crew, stumbles across an exe in the apartment he’s searching and gets bitten by it, the mission is immediately curtailed as they try to recover him back to The Mount for urgent treatment. However, as their truck rushes homewards, they drive into a trap set for them by a local gang that seems intent on taking over the whole of Los Angeles. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, since none of the gang members are a match for any of the super-heroes. The gang, though, seem to have started recruiting exes to their cause. Not just any old exes but walking, talking, intelligent ones. Suddenly, the situation looks bleak. Will the super-heroes be able to get the truck and its human contents back home safely? Even if they do, can they protect all their charges if the thousands of zombies massed outside the gates to The Mount stop just shambling around aimlessly and start to plan their attacks?
‘Ex-Heroes’ is a fresh and exciting mash-up of the zombie and super-hero tropes. In both cases, Clines takes the standard model and modifies it in an interesting new direction. The super-heroes, for example, have only recently gained their super-powers following a meteor strike and are a broad mix of people with diverse powers and very different views of their role. On the one hand, we have the ‘whiter than white’ all-American hero St. George, a former chemist who was transformed into a fire-breathing, flying super-hero when the meteors hit his lab. On the other, there is Stealth, the totally pragmatic, ‘do whatever it takes to get the job done’ female leader of the free humans.
Stealth is a great character, an extremely intelligent, logical woman who views her beauty as a curse and so uses a costume to ensure that people judge her on her actions, not her looks. However, the costume is one of the few things where she fails to achieve what she intended, having designed herself a form-fitting costume that may be practical for fighting zombies, but also makes her look more, rather than less sexy to her many admirers. It’s also interesting to note that Stealth is clearly in charge of The Mount, yet she is the only ‘super-hero’ who doesn’t actually have any super-powers. Instead, she is very fit, highly trained in various martial arts and has extremely quick reactions.
The novel is confidently written, with enough flashes of humour to lighten what might otherwise have become a rather maudlin tale. It’s difficult not to admire the role the super-heroes have taken on, given that most of them did not have long to get used to their powers and responsibilities before the zombie apocalypse began. At the same time, it’s enormously enjoyable to see the massive showdowns they have with crowds of exes that would have torn apart an ordinary human within seconds. Ultimately, that’s what makes this book a success. It’s a great mix of action, horror and fun.
‘Ex-Heroes’ is the first in a series. I enjoyed it a great deal, and look forward to reading the follow-up novel, ‘Ex-Patriots’.
(pub: Del Rey (UK). 336 page paperback. Price: £6.99 (UK)., ISBN: 978-0-09195-362-1 (UK)
(pub: Broadway Paperbacks (USA). 336 page paperback. Price: $14.00 (US), $17.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-8041-3657-0)