Pros: Breathes new life into the zombie survival genre
Cons: Can’t avoid a few pieces of well-worn territory
Rating: 4 out of 5
I discovered Peter Clines’s work when I received a review copy of The Fold and followed it up by purchasing 14, a book set in the same universe. I enjoyed those enough that now I’m going back to check out some of his other work. In Ex-Heroes: A Novel, Clines takes on the zombie genre–and the superhero genre. Now there’s a genre mix-up I didn’t see coming.
St. George and Stealth take good care of the people who’ve come to rely on them. They have a sanctuary set up in the Hollywood area, and frankly the Seventeens, a street gang, give them more trouble than the zombies (called exes, as in ex-living) do. There’s a goodly handful of other super-human allies with abilities of one kind or another–Cerberus, for example, is an exoskeleton piloted by the woman who came up with it. Mostly they’re kept occupied planning and taking care of their charges, but suddenly things change for the… worse? They’re not sure at first. One of the exes talks, has personality, and doesn’t automatically attack all nearby people. This could be a complete game-changer. However, it seems that the Seventeens are the ones keeping the secret of how this was done, and they plan to use that knowledge to wipe out our heroes and the people who rely on them.
I love it. There are a few moments here and there where you stumble into a zombie trope or two, or a detail reminds you of Walking Dead. That isn’t much of a negative, though, seeing as the zombie genre has been mined so deeply that it’s probably impossible to avoid at this point. St. George is a great primary point of view character, although we get to see some things from others’ viewpoints. It’s fascinating to watch heroes–people who traditionally act primarily as lone vigilantes or teams of active protectors–relegated to semi-passively protecting a single area and the people within it. They do patrols together. They organize people to help kill the exes or make sorties to search for supplies. I’m fond of the post-apocalyptic survival genre niche, so I enjoyed that. I also love how Clines handles heroes–they’re very real people, and sometimes the best way for them to help isn’t by being the flashy savior. They can get tired and frustrated just like the humans around them. The characterization is lovely, although I really want to see more about Stealth as a character interacting with others.
The stakes are sufficiently high–no matter how practiced you are at dealing with exes, there will be mistakes and bad luck and treachery to keep things humming along. That pacing is fantastic and kept me glued to my seat. Clines also comes up with an unusual way to up the ante and to keep a street gang actively dangerous to a bunch of heroes.
The world-building is very close-contact–i.e., we learn about it from people’s personal memories and experiences rather than through an infodump or the like. Because of that, the world feels very solid and real.
Ex-Heroes was a great read, and clearly I’m going to have to dig up the other books in the series!