I happened across this book, I think I’d heard it mentioned on a sci-fi podcast or something, but it kind of falls outside of my normal reading material, at least my normal literary reading material. Sure, I read this kind of thing in comic books all the time, super heroics and dastardly supervillains, but I’ve only stumbled across it a couple of times in book form so I thought I’d give it a shot.
This is the first novel by former CIA agent and Marvel and DC writer, he’s even the co-writer of Grayson, a series I very much enjoyed. So let’s go up, up and away and look at A Once Crowded Sky.
It is a world where superheroes and supervillains exist, at least until recently when a mysterious interdimensional force called Blue threatened to destroy the world and the world’s greatest hero, Ultimate, was forced to siphon all of the powers of the world’s heroes to defeat it, destroying himself in the process. Now, there is only one powered hero remaining, Ultimate’s former sidekick PenUltimate, and the rest are reeling over the loss of their abilities. PenUltimate has retired, but strange things are happening in Arcadia City that may drag Pen back into the limelight and reveal that Ultimate’s sacrifice may not have been enough.
First off, so much of this is a rip-off of superhero comics. I’d say homage, but it’s so close to the original material, a lot of it comes off as a copy. Comics like Watchmen, Squadron Supreme and the original Astro City are easily seen in the pages of A Once Crowded Sky. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it less than original, I’d seen all of the original source material and there wasn’t all that much really new here. Unfortunately, it’s not really done as well as those original sources. It isn’t that I’m against books about superheroes, I can think of a few I’ve enjoyed, including the Rising Stars novelization by Arthur Byron Cover, maybe just because I liked the comic so much, but this one just didn’t grab me. Second, the writing style just doesn’t resonate with me at all. I do tend to be pretty picky about how stories are told and this was just a struggle from beginning to end. It’s filled with flashbacks, many of which are not well defined and it’s confusing throughout. Finally, this book really isn’t about superheroes, it’s about the psychology of superheroes, or former ones at least. It’s about getting into their heads and discovering how they work, it isn’t about watching them BIFF! and POW! the bad guys. While there is certainly some value in such a book, that’s really not what I signed on for. This is one that I almost didn’t finish, I was well past the half-way point when I said the heck with it, I’ve already invested this much time, I’m going to power through to the end. It did get better, but there’s a lot of flash-backs and confusing prose that you have to get through to reach that point.
If you’re really interested in the psychology of superheroes, this is probably the book for you. If you just want to see them in action, probably not. Had King tried to make this less like a prose version of a comic book, it might have been better but that’s really a huge problem. Books and comics are not the same thing, they have fundamentally different structures and I fear King forgot which one he was writing and I’m far from being the only one who has noticed. I good effort by someone whose writing I usually enjoy in comic form, I wish him better luck in future books.