In November I attended the Phoenix Fan Fest with my friend Ashley, who is a big fan of author Drew Hayes. He, like a lot of the new wave of writers, has built his audience through his online presence and releasing stories on a weekly basis. He does a series called Super Powereds and releases chapters through a Patreon page.
My first experience with his work was a novel Ashley had bought for me called The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant. It’s a fun tale about an average guy becoming a vampire and basically staying an average guy… until he gets caught up with a girl from high school that fights monsters. It was an interesting read, and getting to meet Drew in person was very cool. He’s a nice guy and freely chatted about his work, the process, and gave me some tips for getting my own books onto Audible (working on that).
While I was there, he had a new series starting up called The Villains’ Code with the first book, Forging Hephaestus, available in hardcover (Ashley bought the last soft cover copy). I picked it up, got it signed, and then did what I am most likely to do: download the audiobook and listen to it.
The book is a unique take on the concept of building a super hero universe. There is a balance of power between the alliance of heroes and the villains’ guild. Rules are in place where as long as the bad guys don’t break them, the capes don’t come after them hard core. In exchange, the villains don’t go after heroes’ families, try not to kill anyone, etc. It’s kind of an uneasy acceptance of one another to keep things from being worse. We see this from a handful of newly powered people moving into this world.
Our main character is Tori Rivas, a woman with the ability to become living fire. Tori is not a hero — she’s a thief, and she ends up breaking into the lab of the villains’ guild where she is basically recruited to join and learn to live by their code or be killed. Sword of Damocles, etc. She is given to a retired villain as an apprentice to either train or dispose of. The ex-villain was once the killer named Fornax, but is now a 9-5 office manager/part-time father trying to live a quiet life in the suburbs. Also, Tori is a bit obsessed with building a mech suit. Yes, she has the power of living flame, but sees herself as an inventor and mech-wearing bad guy, converting her flame powers into fuel for the suit.
Hayes does a remarkable job of building a complicated universe that is filled with shades of grey and people who very much want to take it back to being black and white. The identities of the ultimate bad guys of the story are rather obvious, but that doesn’t take away from the story at all. The buildup of the mentor/apprentice relationship is very well done, as is the introduction of the other villains and heroes. The major ones have good back stories and personalities, while the minor ones we get to know just enough to make them interesting. The powers he comes up with aren’t the standard tropes of speedster, super-soldier, etc., and the setup of ‘the code’ is very well done. Even the names he comes up with for the heroes are unique… especially ‘Johnny Three Dicks’, whose name choice made the guild add some rules about naming.
My only complaint is that Hayes puts so much into building the world and introducing us to characters that the book feels long. It is long, but a good story should never feel long. I’m not sure what I would cut out, as I can see the importance of each part. But the story is still long, and certain reveals are obvious from the beginning and seemed unnecessary to hide. But those are minor complains about an otherwise well-written book.
There is something to be said for the superhero genre in novels and prose. When done well, it brings a unique experience that relies even more on the reader’s imagination than a comic book does. Now the reader is asked to do more than just ‘fill the gutters’ between the panels, but here they’re asked to design costumes and layouts and all other visual aspects that would normally be the realm of the artist. And for someone who has read comics their whole life, It feels like you’re a bit more involved in the story. I’d recommend this book to both novel and comic readers alike.