“You called me a symbol, and you’re right. This suit stands for something. It isn’t me living some childhood fantasy or anything like that. It’s about hope.”
This novel was sent to me for review by the good folks at Permuted Press.
As a man who loves zombies, I especially appreciate two aspects—their creation story, and the way they’re used as metaphor. As a man who loves superheroes, I’m fond of the authors who take the usual conventions and either places them in an unusual situation or messes with the tropes to toss the concept of the “hero” on its head.
Ex-Heroes, the novel of post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, by Peter Clines, combines all of this into a hearty, thought-provoking, and completely satisfying experience. Every aspect I just wrote about is explored…and then some.
The plot is simple enough. The undead have risen across the land, forcing martial law upon the citizens. Everything crumbles, leaving it up to the superheroes who populate this world—who’ve only discovered their abilities in the last couple years, as if Mother Nature knew this was going to happen and took steps to help stem the tide of destruction—to pick up the mantle of protection. After all, when society collapses, it is up to the best of us, no matter what form they take, to help keep society alive.
The book is written in a very unique way. Each chapter is separated into two segments—“Now” and “Then.” “Now” is told in third person, telling the story of the survivors and their guardians as they try to go on each day inside The Mount (a reinforced Paramount Studios), fighting back the legions of zombies and scrounging for supplies. “Then” is told in first person, and it is here where the author bucks convention. Each of these subdivisions introduces us to the heroes individually, telling the tales of how they became what they ended up being in their own words. When I mentioned tossing the concept on its head, this is what I was talking about. Each of the heroes is revealed to be a real, live human being, one with doubts, faults, desires, fears, and missteps. There are no cartoons or cardboard cutouts here. Each hero is valid; they’re individuals from various walks of life who just so happened to be blessed with a unique gift.
In post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, there are two warring factions—those on The Mount, and the Seventeens, or SS, a roving street gang whose numbers have surprisingly grown larger since the end of the world. While the heroes have to fight back the zombies each day hidden behind walls and barricades, the Seventeens seem to live on the streets with very little protection. All of which says there is more here than meets the eye, some behind-the-scenes mystery that just might spell doom for our heroes.
All of this is tied together nicely with the vagueness of the disease that caused the dead to rise in the first place. We learn the virus itself isn’t lethal, it simply re-animates dead tissue. The reason folks die from the bites is the ungodly levels of bacteria and other diseases harvesting in their mouths. This was something new to me, and I almost jumped up and applauded the writer for his resourcefulness. And then, toward the end of the book, it is revealed what truly caused the outbreak, and all I could do was keep nodding my head, over and over and over. Just like the heroes, the plague got itself an original—and unexpected—origin story.
Yeah, I guess you could say I fell in love with this novel. Is it the best book ever written? Of course not. There are a couple plot holes that could use some further explanation and on more than one occasion I wanted to run into the page and slap the heroes upside their heads when they made a few stupid decisions. But none of that matters, because it’s the afterglow of any literature that one must judge it by, the way you remember the experience long after it’s done. And I can honestly say that Ex-Heroes has stuck with me ever since I read the last page. It’s affecting, exciting, inventive, and even, surprisingly, innocent. There’s a message of hope—both in human nature and society in general—between those pages that is refreshing. I can’t wait to dive into its sequel, Ex-Patriots, and can say without second thought that this book is in the top five of zombie literature I’ve ever read. Seriously.