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Price offers interesting concepts with less interesting execution

By Marn, author of Prairie Song

Nov 13, 2015: After reading through a fairly large chunk of the Death of a Hero arc, I can firmly say that my initial impression of Price was correct. The writing is full of little tidbits of worldbuilding that consistently make me want to know more about the universe Price takes place in, but I have trouble bringing myself to care about the characters living in the universe. For instance, the alternate history that Price seems to take place in intrigued me, such as the mention of classical novels like The Great Gatsby including Imbued characters. I found myself consistently looking to know more about the history of the Imbued and how they had impacted society, rather than being caught up in the present action of the story.

The concept of the Imbued "surging" (gaining new powers after the event that first gives them superpowers to begin with) is also an idea I’ve never seen played with in the way Price does it. In the world of Price, surging isn’t a rarity – it happens to protagonist Zach right in the third chapter. I was pleasantly surprised by that, as a lot of serials usually save that sort of thing (giving the protagonist new powers) for the endgame. However, the downside to this is that Zach seems very overpowered right from the beginning of the story, and has so many unrelated superpowers that I found myself struggling to keep up with what he could and couldn’t do during a fight. I did think that the idea of him being able to regenerate his clothes as well as his body parts was a cool power idea, and I wish that had been utilized more in the fight scenes.

For however much I liked Zach’s powers, I found it hard to care about him as a protagonist. The in medias res opening of Chapter 1 prevents us from learning anything about him on a personal level, including what his motivation is to be fighting the villains he nearly loses against, and so I had a hard time rooting for him to pull through when he was in danger. He isn’t even given a name until halfway through Chapter 2! I feel that Price would have a much stronger hook if it opened with the events of Chapter 2 instead, as it introduces the reader to Zach in a school environment and shows how he gets his superpowers, as well as laying out for the reader what his motivations are and what the stakes are when he goes to face the villains in Chapter 1. It fleshes him out so that the reader will feel bad when he gets hurt, rather than first presenting him as a nameless, faceless hero on a mission we know nothing about.

The narration of Price seems too immature at times, even for a story largely being narrated by a teenage protagonist. Reading Zach’s little mental asides (such as "Damn my power is badass" or "Muck futhering goat testicles") often drew me right out of the story, because he doesn’t sound like any high schooler I’ve ever met before. I’ve found that this is often a problem when older writers try to think and write from the perspective of a teenager – a lot of modern video games like Life Is Strange and Until Dawn have the same issue. Teen characters use weird slang or made-up expressions, because it seems weird to older authors that they could be expected to think or express themselves in an adult way.

Another narrative issue that I would like to take up with Price is that while reading it, I became profoundly uncomfortable with the way it treats women. Zach is very quick to come down on female characters as being "slutty", which I could accept as part of his personality if other characters like Laura didn’t mirror his sentiments as well (in her Chapter 6 interlude, Laura thinks to herself that Erica would "tease" Zach by wearing "some of her sluttiest outfits when visiting" him). I do understand, as well, that friends may rib each other about these things, but Zach is also quick to objectify women who aren’t his friends (he describes classmate Cassie with adjectives like "eye candy" and "pretty trashy"). Zach never acts on these thoughts, or expresses them out loud, but it still feels skeevy that he is essentially mentally undressing just about every female character he comes across instead of thinking of them with respect. It’s also a bit strange that he’s looking at other women like this when the wound of Erica’s rape and subsequent death should still be fresh in his mind. It makes Zach’s grief, which we’re reminded of over and over, a little hard to swallow.

Speaking of Erica, she is more of a plot device than a character, a driving force for Zach and part of his "origin story" as a superhero. Initially, I thought that she was Zach’s girlfriend, but upon re-reading, I noticed that she’s simply a girl Zach is in love with from afar, a girl he is "sort of a stalker for". And yet, the news about her is what triggers him into getting his superpowers. I personally found it insensitive that Erica was treated in this way, and that her rape and murder were continually brought up in order to emphasize Zach’s pain, as though the torture of Erica was only salt in his own wounds. This is an issue that, unfortunately, most mainstream superhero stories tend to suffer from. Rape is a serious subject, and one that needs to be approached with care, but it is so often seen as something that a writer can have happen to female characters for the sake of drama, or to kick the men around them into action. It feels especially out of place in this story, because we know nothing about Erica, and the news of her rape does not have the significant impact on the reader that it should. Neither Erica, nor Zach’s feelings for her, are developed enough by the time we know that she has been raped and murdered, and so she simply becomes a part of the background, a setpiece in Zach’s origin story. There is no analysis of her feelings, or acknowledgement of the gravitas of what was done to her, that goes as in depth as I would have liked it to.

Also of note is Price’s treatment of PoC characters. I found it a little questionable that Zach describes Ferne in Chapter 2 as "some kind of Asian mix, if only from her figure" and it actually made him pretty unlikable to me right off the bat. Of course, protagonists don’t always have to be likeable, but this piled on top of the sexism I addressed above made me very unwilling to get behind Zach as a narrator and protagonist. It was brought to my attention that Erica is intended to be Hispanic, but I do not feel that Zach’s love for her does anything to erase the problematic descriptions of other PoC characters in Price. In fact, that knowledge about Erica’s race only makes me more uncomfortable about the fact that she, her rape, and her murder are sidelined in favor of the story of Zach, a white heterosexual man who has (possibly unrequited) feelings for her.

Los Fieles, and the gang members Zach interacts with in Chapter Seven, did nothing to soothe my discomfort with the treatment of PoC characters. Los Fieles, being a villainous gang of Hispanics, struck me as . . . a bit of a racist trope, I suppose. Granted, gangs made up of Hispanic people do exist in real life, but it’s hard to have one in a piece of fiction without straying into the realm of racial stereotyping. And some of the gang members Zach encounters in Chapter Seven are referred to only as "two different clusters of blacks", while the white gang is glossed over as being made up of "skinheads" – no racial descriptor. Zach does interact with a black gang member in Chapter Seven, but that black gang member is never given a name, or a personality beyond offering Zach drugs.

Also of note: there is a prominent white "gang" (if you could call it that), later on, that is literally a white power group called Lightbringer. I suppose I appreciated that there was at least a morally reprehensible white power group thrown into the story, even if they seemed to me like an expy of Worm’s Empire 88. And I’m no stranger to the often heavyhanded way superhero stories address racism. But when the narrative brings up Hitler, and mentions his "[super]power [that] allowed him to functionally mind control a nation", I get a little iffy about what exactly the writer is trying to do. Alternate histories are fun, and like I said above, I like how Price inserts superhumans into world events and classical literature. But it’s probably better to leave the Holocaust out of things, especially if you’re implying that it happened because of mind control superpowers and not Antisemitism, racism, and homophobia that still exist today.

I understand, and can even appreciate, that the author was attempting to write a story set in a diverse world, with a diverse cast, that showcases that tragedy can and will happen to anyone no matter what their race, class, gender, or sexuality are. But some of the issues brought up within Price aren’t given the gravitas that they ought to be, or treated with the correct amount of respect. As someone who belongs to quite a few minority groups myself, and who found those issues ruining my ability to enjoy the story, I thought it was only right for me to point it out.

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