Anyone who’s been reading this site for a while knows that I regularly pass on zingy series fiction to my husband. Though his reading interests are polar opposites of mine, he’s possibly an even tougher critic. He’s basically a thirty-year-old teenage boy, and a mere paragraph of extraneous exposition results in him skim-reading–or worse, putting down a book for good.
Presently I can only think of half a dozen or so series that pass the husband test. These include Michael Grant’s Gone series, Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, and the mega-fat Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. With Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime books, I can add another to this list. (When I get a chance, Steve, I’ll totally make you a badge.)
The standard X meets Y elevator pitch for these books seems to be Alex Rider meets X-Men, but I’d disagree–and only partly because Alex Rider failed the husband test. My description would be something more along the lines of Percy Jackson meets Captain Planet after a serious red cordial and jelly snake binge. (Strangely enough, very few of my blurbs end up on the backs of books. I can’t imagine why that is.)
But in all seriousness, Wild Card, the second in Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series, is excellent stuff. It’s a book that, like the Percy Jackson books, combines quick-draw pacing with intelligent, self-aware humour and a wonderful sense of the humanity that is underscored by its super-human characters. Lochran has a superb understanding of the power of juxtaposition and contrast, and he uses his superhero glitz and glamour as a lens through which to examine the everyday.
So plot-wise, what do we have? Here’s a quick run-down. Newly recruited superhero Goldrush is off attending a personal development session when he and his chaperone the Knight of Wands are attacked. It turns out that the Knight of Wands is the subject of a Kill Order–but as they try to find out who’s behind the order, Goldrush and the Knight of Wands find themselves caught up in a complex battle of maybe-good versus maybe-bad, with many shades of grey in between. No one’s entirely as they seem, and Lochran plays up the moral ambiguity of the situation to excellent effect, giving us a fascinating cast of characters with conflicting interests and intriguing back-stories.
Unlike many such series, our protagonist is not a kind of blank-slate everyman. He’s surprisingly well-defined for such a slender volume, and Lochran puts him to work battling all sorts of existential and moral dilemmas. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the fact that Goldrush (also known as Sam) identifies as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (binary?) of ordinary person and superhero. Throughout the book he vacillates between dreaming about what his friends from his “ordinary” life are doing and bridling at the fact that he hasn’t been formally acknowledged as a member of his new superhero family. He also finds himself seeking out the mundane in the extraordinary and vice-versa, and these small moments add up to something that over time creates quite an impact.
At first all of this identity crisis business may seem at odds with the larger business of fighting baddies, but in Lochran’s cleverly realised world, it’s not at all. Goldrush’s identity is key to the decisions that he makes–as is pointed out quite explicitly by the Knight of Wands during his superheroism as a “call to personal evolution” speech. The speech might seem immediately applicable to Goldrush, but in fact it’s universally applicable.
What Lochran is doing with Wild Card is ambitious and clever. It’s less the kind of a superhero story you might see on the big screen, and more one where the term “super” is used to simply exaggerate very real issues. Lochran’s characters speak of superheroes, of superheroism, or superpowers, but in many ways they live in a world of omni-hyperbole. When everything is exaggerated, those exaggerations then become normalised, bringing us back full circle: this series is in many ways a classic bildungsroman–only set against a backdrop of kapows, witty banter and leotards, and with a plot that’s more determined that your typical Terminator to keep on truckin’.
Admittedly, there are some things that felt a little incongruously heavy-handed against this thematic elegance and some very, very slick writing. I do wonder whether the fact that I stumbled over these elements was due partly to my lack of familiarity with the graphic novel side of the superhero canon, which I’d bet that this series draws upon quite heavily. For example, I felt that the switching between the points-of-views of Goldrush and his antagonists resulted in some choppiness, particularly when those scenes were action-heavy and were occurring simultaneously; neither was I entirely satisfied with the nightmares that bookend the story. Curiously, I can see these elements working in a more visually oriented format–and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this was the effect that Lochran was going for here.
A gripe that’s less readily explained by the above but that can probably be put down to the difficulties of marketing an Australian author to a global audience is the fact that the book feels locationally ambiguous: I didn’t get a strong sense of Sam’s background, and felt that both Sam and his non-superhero life felt a bit unanchored as a result. Once things get moving, however, we’re spirited off to more concrete locations, which certainly helps to ground the book.
Brimming with imagination and wit and with pacing so fast that you’ll be in pain from the G forces, Wild Card is a overall thoroughly enjoyable addition to the superhero genre. And given that it passed the husband test with flying colours, I’m pretty sure it’ll pass the disaffected teen reader test, too.
With thanks to Penguin Australia for the review copy
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Other books by Steven Lochran: