Superpowered Pulp: Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

Hot on the heels of his neat noir debut, Empire State, author Adam Christopher returns with a winningly widescreen story about the fine line between right and wrong, and though Seven Wonders is a little lacking in terms of character and narrative, its action is excellent, and the sense of pure exuberance pervading this pulpy morality play proves persuasive.

Heroes and villains abound in Christopher’s new book, and it isn’t always easy to tell the usual suspects apart — not for us, nor indeed for them. Take Tony Prosdocimi, whose lifelong career in retail has left him exactly as satisfied as you’d imagine. To make matters worse, one day he wakes up with the first in a time-tested onslaught of superpowers.

You must be wondering, why worse? Who wouldn’t want to be able to bend steel without breaking a sweat? Consider, then, that old adage: with great power comes — you guessed it — great responsibility, and Tony… Tony isn’t exactly into that. Furthermore, he doesn’t have the slightest clue how to control his inexplicable new abilities, so this strange development is as nerve-wracking as it is awesome with a capital AWESOME.

But hey, at least he’s lucky in love! Doubly lucky, I dare say, to have a girlfriend happy to help him become the new man he’ll need to be to master flight, X-ray sight and the like. But is Jeannie too good to be true? Why in the world would a woman like her take an interest in Tony, anyway? He was a nothing. A nobody.

Now, suddenly, he’s become a something. A somebody. Then, when opportunity knocks “on an ordinary workaday morning, in an ordinary workaday bank in downtown San Ventura” (p.17) — the scene of a heist masterminded by the Shining City’s resident supercriminal — Tony acid tests his powers against the Cowl. He doesn’t win this war of wills… but he doesn’t lose outright, either. Thus affirmed, and all ideals, Tony promptly resolves to clean up the luridly-lit streets of San Ventura, up to and including the black-clad oppressor whose reign of terror has gone on too long.

“Unusual causes of death in San Ventura were not, well, unusual. Plasma incineration, bones powdered with a superpowered punch, flesh rendered molecule by molecule: the SuperCrime department had seen it all. Including, on very rare and significant occasions, the results of a knife so sharp it fell through solid objects.” (pp.97-98)

Of course, Tony isn’t the only hope of the modern metropolis he calls home. Far from it, in fact. Renowned the world over, the Seven Wonders have saved the citizens of San Ventura from any number of threats, but to our man they’re at best ineffectual. At worst, the assembled avengers represent an obstacle he’ll have to overcome in order to take down the Cowl once and for all, because “if there was one thing guaranteed to piss the Seven Wonders off, it was a new hero on their turf.” (p.42)

Meanwhile, in the aforementioned SuperCrime department of the SVPD, Detectives Sam Millar and Joe Milano are on the Cowl’s trail too, but they go where the evidence leads them, and soon enough it suggests another avenue of investigation: a certain Big Deal employee, Tony Prosdocimi.

In the acknowledgements, the author tips his hat towards the groundbreaking comic book Astro City, which Seven Wonders rather resembles. For all intents and purposes, the pair share a Technicolor setting, a disparate notion of narrative, and an interest in the psychology of the superpowered — not to mention those mere mortals who become caught in their orbit. Let me stress that there’s nothing sinister about said similarities: assuredly this novel owes a debt of gratitude to Kurt Busiek’s greatest creation, but so do any number of subsequent series. It is, however, a useful point of comparison… one that leaves Seven Wonders wanting.

To say it’s all spectacle and no substance would be to overstate the case, though there is, alas, an imbalance. Seven Wonders moves inexorably from set-piece to set-piece, each as compelling and impressive as the last, but the transitions between these scenes could be smoother. Conversations in which the dialogue borders on the obvious can take several chapters to wrap up — though they’re short chapters, and over quickly, so there’s that.

More meaningfully, I fear, Christopher’s Kryptonite appears to be character development: in Seven Wonders, as in Empire State, this is either lackluster or abrupt. At one point a narrator remarks about how easy it would be to be evil with hyperspeed and ultrastrength on your side, then immediately a good guy goes bad, robbing a convenience store for no real reason that I could see. To a certain extent this dovetails — albeit broadly — with Seven Wonders’ core concern, which asks what it means to be a hero, really. Christopher even considers the question in relation to his villain:

“The Cowl wasn’t evil. Nobody was. Everybody in the whole world was the center of their own life drama. Everybody was their own superhero, everybody was a good guy. It just so happened that the Cowl’s “good” was the opposite of most people’s.” (p.185)

But when this superhero come common criminal starts slaughtering police officers instead of stopping to wonder about what’s been begun, what little credibility the cartoonish characters of Seven Wonders had earned till then is spent. Hereafter the novel’s many twists and turns have precious little impact, because when good guys go bad and bad guys come good, you start to expect the unexpected.

Ultimately, Seven Wonders is a fairly entertaining amalgamation of comic book, crime fiction and pulp pastiche about power, complete with a well-sketched world and an alarming quantity of action — to boot astutely put. If you’re looking for something light, Adam Christopher’s second novel might just be right on the night, but ask for much more than a few evenings of frivolous fun and you’re likely to find that Seven Wonders’ arch-enemy is its own ambition.

Niall Alexander reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for, Strange Horizons and The Speculative Scotsman. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.


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