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Crippled By The Protagonist

By Rhodeworks, author of Not All Heroes

May 30, 2018: This is a difficult review for me.

I have a critical mind, but I do not enjoy being harsh. Death of a Hero—a part of the wider Price world—was a difficult read. There are some fairly interesting ideas in here, but they are buried under a wealth of issues that I assume, hopefully, stem from the author’s misguided attempt to capture a particular character with a particular voice.

The prose is fine. In some aspects, I found it better than some other serials I’ve read. But it also features some of the common parts of serial writing: a use of hedging language and robotic prose. Things are told to us by the protagonist without being described. Of the 12+ chapters I read, I noticed enough typos, missing words, and so on that they stuck out to me. A few issues with tense, too, but less so. A very obvious issue an early chapter was that of a strangely formatted text block. Most common, however, was a lack of dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking in certain sequences.

I wouldn’t say that’s my issue with the writing, however. In serials, you basically have to look past those issues. But I found that it lacked any sense of gravitas. Things happen but there’s little weight to any of it, which is an issue in a first-person narrative where I should be feeling and experiencing what the character feels and experiences. Combine this with switching to other viewpoint characters—also rendered in first-person—and I begin to wonder why that perspective was chosen at all.

The pacing is not great. Things drag. Some chapters just kind of peter out to their finish point. In fights, it’s hard to take things seriously when heroes and villains are talking at length to each other. The problem with ‘schools and powers’ superhero stories is that it’s difficult to make the former as interesting as the latter. I can appreciate the attempt to find a good street level balance, but the school chapters were frequently boring. We spend the first chapter with a nameless protagonist whose relationships aren’t so much unclear as entirely unmentioned. A few chapters later, we learn that his name is Zach and the woman in the car with him is his sister. As it is, the first chapter feels almost entirely superfluous and the time sequencing of chapters 1, 2 and 3 is awkward.

The setting is similar to Worm, to the extent that I am forced to say I consider Death of a Hero derivative, inheriting the same issues (and also including pop culture references that invite comparison, hurting what originality there is). The world is that of a nebulous ‘five minutes into the future’ superhero setting. It’s the kind of place where the procedural aspects of superpowered life and authority are murky, like the world hasn’t had time to adjust the systems of governance and public life for superpowered people. And yet this is a setting with a full alternate history, where superheroes have been around since before World War 2, so present in history that Hitler used his powers to control Germany.

But the worst part of Death of a Hero, and the death knell to a first-person story, is the protagonist.

In a first-person story, there are two options. One, you can go with a characterful protagonist and really immerse the reader in their perspective, making them sympathetic enough that you like them regardless of flaws. Two, you can go with more of a cipher—an everyperson who is more of a thin excuse to have a window into the setting.

Zach is an attempt at the first category, but his odious flaws annihilate any hope of finding him pleasant to follow for the duration of a serial. To be blunt, Zach is a teenage boy but he reads as an immature caricature, one imagined by a much older person. Sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia are practically a constant, ranging in severity from ‘slightly problematic’ to ‘flat out offensive’. What little sympathy the story kindles in me for Zach, as a teenage boy afraid of being seen as weak and cowardly, it’s practically impossible at this point for the story to make him likable. There just isn’t enough done to humanize him. He’s just kind of a dick to everyone—in a school with a huge gang population who sew knives into their clothes.

I want to say that Zach is just a bad experiment in creating an unreliable protagonist. It’d make me question why you’d write about someone with those particular flaws. But perhaps Zach will grow as a person and throw off all of those -isms. It doesn’t seem like it’s that kind of story, however, and he practically repels the connection you’d need to see an arc like that through to the end, but it’s possible.

The unfortunate thing about Death of a Hero is that I don’t think that’ll happen. It’d be one thing if Zach’s lecherous nature was pointed, aimed like a smart bomb and wielded like a scalpel. It isn’t. He doesn’t come across as an awkward teen but a lech. And that lecherous perspective gets pointed at everything female from preteen supervillains to classmates to teachers to his own mother. It also shows up in perspectives that aren’t Zach. The story is steeped in a fairly unapologetic male gaze, and I haven’t even touched on the character of Erica and what amounts to the inciting incident for Zach’s story (and, really, she’s more of a plot device to drive that story. Something about fridging, I think.)

To be blunt, if the story can’t properly convey the gravitas of something lighter, like the effect of Zach’s first Surge (an admittedly interesting concept), what chance is there that it’ll properly manage to handle those thornier subjects appropriately?

I read to Chapter 14, took a breather, reflected, and decided to power through. Whereupon I promptly hit three or four more landmines throughout the chapter, and decided that it wasn’t going to improve. Ultimately, my experience with Death of a Hero eroded my trust in Tananari’s to handle delicate subject matter, and that caused me to drop the serial.

This makes Death of a Hero extremely difficult to recommend. The world is derivative but it could go in some interesting directions, with the Surge concept and the alternate histories (if not handled as well as it could have been) having some ripe potential, particularly with how it works to explain/acknowledge certain superhero tropes. I really did like the Age of Mad Science and the Labyrinth and that aspect of the world, seeing how weird things had gotten. But to see this through past the initial chapters, you’re going to need to be able to ignore—or simply not care about—a protagonist who reads like an entirely mundane monster.

Perhaps the other works in the same world are better but, to be perfectly honest, I’m not inclined to check after my experience with Death of a Hero. In the future, after I’ve had time to clear my perspective, I may come back to them, but I doubt I’ll ever catch up on Zach’s story.

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