I like superheroes and I like zombies – a book that combined the two seemed like a good fit for me. Unfortunately, I had some issues with Ex-Heroes, to the point that I ended up taking a multi-week break from it part of the way through. Had this been a library checkout rather than a purchase, I probably would have DNFed it.
The plot was fairly simple but took such a long time to get going that I feel like almost any synopsis I might write would give too much away. I will say that the basic setup should be familiar to any fan of zombie apocalypse stories: a group of survivors tries to continue surviving, hopefully find a cure, and maybe even forge something like a normal and fear-free existence. This particular group of survivors (really, enough people to count as a little town) just happens to be guarded by a few surviving superheroes.
One of those superheroes is St. George, a guy who can breathe fire and glide for a long enough distance that it looks like he can fly and who, more importantly, is completely invulnerable. Then there's Gorgon, a man whose gaze can suck the energy out of people and temporarily give him greater power. Cerberus is the name given both to an enormous armed mecha and to the woman who operates it. Zzzap is a man in a wheelchair who can transform into a flying being made out of energy. Stealth is mysterious, athletic, and coldly cerebral.
Here's the good: I really did enjoy the combination of zombies and superheroes. Clines didn't exactly do anything new with those aspects – I've already mentioned the familiarity of the zombie apocalypse setup, and I could think of Marvel or DC equivalents for several of the superheroes. St. George was a fire-breathing Superman. Stealth was a female Batman without the childhood tragedy (which, considering St. George's attraction to her, makes this very nearly Superman/Batman slash fic). Cerberus could be seen as a female Iron Man. Even the way the story was told was familiar: Clines alternated between the post-apocalyptic present and brief flashbacks that showed either the various superheroes' origin stories or the early days of the zombie apocalypse.
Although the individual components were familiar, the way Clines combined them resulted in some interesting moments and revelations that almost made me want to continue reading/listening to this series. The second book, Ex-Patriots, is part of Audible's current “2 for 1 credit” sale, and I'm tempted. Jay Snyder did a great job with the male voices and POV parts, although there were times when his “superhero” voice clashed with certain lines. (I just googled Snyder and learned that he voiced Descendants of Darkness's Tsuzuki. Fangirl moment.) Khristine Hvam also did a great job with the female voices and POV parts. I wouldn't mind listening to another audiobook voiced by the two of them together, and part of me does want to know what happens next in this series, but...
Okay, now for the negatives. Clines' superheroes were regular people who, one way or another, ended up becoming superheroes and, well, some of them weren't very heroic. There was Gorgon and his 17-year-old girlfriend, Maxwell Hale and his extremely flexible ideas of right and wrong, and pretty much everybody's objectification of Stealth.
Speaking of Stealth, she could probably count as an example of an asexual character (out of curiosity, she'd tried sex with both men and women but couldn't understand the appeal). She was, however, the kind of asexual stereotype I hate, a completely emotionally distant block of ice who only cared whether those around her were useful or not. As much as I disliked her, the way male characters tended to focus on her breasts and catalog all her curves bothered the heck out of me, because I knew that, had she been able to peek into those characters' minds, she'd have been horrified. This was a woman who was so averse to the idea of others noticing her physical attractiveness more than anything else about her that she almost always shrouded herself in a full-length cloak.
Now for the part of Ex-Heroes that bothered me so much that I had to take a multi-week audiobook break. The book took place in L.A., and several of the characters liked to brag about the famous zombified people they'd managed to take out. During one particular bragging session, someone mentioned Maxwell Hale, the superhero who'd ended up becoming a zombie because he'd tried to rape a zombified Jessica Alba. It was just a small moment, and yet it managed to kill nearly all of my enthusiasm for the book. So much about it repulsed me. First, that it happened, period. Second, that a superhero (often shortened to “hero”) did this. Third, that the zombie was a real person rather than some random nameless zombie. Fourth, that the comment seemed to be pointless, a throwaway moment meant as a bit of dark humor but not really important to the story as a whole.
While I would argue that the specific details of the incident that resulted in Hale being turned into a zombie were unnecessary, unfortunately, Hale did show up again later in the book. Readers were treated to a section from his POV, which was about as repugnant as I would have expected it to be. Yes, another character did say that what he tried to do to zombie Jessica Alba was rape. I don't think the other superheroes particularly liked him, and I'm sure Clines meant for him to be viewed as utterly vile. That said, there were other ways Clines could have established Hale as awful and unlikable.
Considering how much I enjyed Clines' 14, Ex-Heroes was disappointing.
- Rising Stars Compendium (graphic novel) by J. Michael Straczynski and various artists - Straczynski's take on superheroes as ordinary people who suddenly develop extraordinary powers and are left to figure out what to do with them. No zombies, but those who liked Clines' various superhero origin story flashbacks might want to give this a try.
- Marvel Zombies (graphic novel) by Robert Kirkman, illustrated by Sean Phillips and Arthur Suydam - Superheroes and zombies. I haven't read it, but if you end up enjoying it you'll be happy to hear that there's plenty more.
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (book) by Seth Grahame-Smith - If all you're interested in is zombie mashups, here's another one for you, zombies plus Pride and Prejudice. I've written about this book.