Seven Wonders is a superhero story, and that's a problem.
Somewhere beneath its slick and shiny exterior of fast chase scenes, supervillain plots, superhero teams with secret identities, hard-boiled cops obsessed with taking that villain down (the villain killed her husband, of course), supervillain sidekicks with plots of their own, Ordinary Boys Made Superpowered, religious epiphanies, city-destroying meteor showers, alien invasions, reverses and counter-reverses and double-triple-quadruple changes, there's an argument about the nature and the temptations of power. It's trying to break free. It's striving to make its way out into the light!
But the argument never quite succeeds in breaking the surface. All we see of it are flashes and glimpses. That's a shame, because Adam Christopher's second novel (following on this January's Empire State) would have been a much better book if it had managed to draw a unifying thematic thread or two through its dizzyingly frenetic scenes and multiparous events. Like a Hollywood blockbuster, it glitters with excitement, and—like most Hollywood blockbusters—it proves itself ultimately superficial. Where it counts, it fails to drive the knife home. It fails to give itself meaning. It implies, in an ironic, postmodernist take on the superhero narrative, that the point of being a superhero (or a supervillain) is to be a superhero (or a supervillain): that it's all just one big game, a show for the cheap seats or for themselves—but if that's what it's aiming for, it's not nearly ironic enough.
There are few genres more American than the superhero story, and few whose internal logic—or lack thereof—I find more distracting. One question that's never really answered is how, despite the clash of the superpowered titans, the backdrop remains so similar to the world we know—right down to off-the-cuff references to television shows like The Wire. It's not something I find easy to reconcile. But perhaps expecting deeper thought in one's superhero stories is asking too much. Seven Wonders is, on technical ability, not a bad book. It is, indeed, quite a skilful translation of the style and, well, visuality of the superhero comic into literary form.
The novel opens with a bank robbery in the fictional California city of San Ventura. San Ventura, home of the world's last supervillain, the Cowl, who has been supervillaining—murder, torture, grand theft, atrocity—among the citizens of the city for at least a decade. San Ventura is also home to the world's last working superhero team, the Seven Wonders, who in all that time have entirely failed to bring the Cowl to justice—although there's seven of them, and only one of him.
Granted, the Cowl does have a sidekick: Blackbird, a scientist who's mad, bad, and dangerous to know. By the point at which Seven Wonders opens, she's already decided to betray him, secretly stealing his powers—gradually—through science, and bestowing them upon her chosen tool, a young man by the name of Tony with no love for either the Cowl or the Seven Wonders.
Tony, who just happens to be in the bank when the Cowl appears to oversee the robbery-in-progress, and who kicks things off with a superpowered duel.
We learn the details of Blackbird's involvement with Tony as the novel progresses. So, too, do we learn what to think of Detective Sam Millar, introduced in chapter two, whose commitment to catching the Cowl borders on obsession. Millar was inside the bank that morning, undercover, in an attempt to capture (or at least unmask) the Cowl. Needless to say, it doesn't work out. Together with her partner, Det. Joe Milano, Millar's drawn into the rapid spiral of escalating crises that affect San Ventura and its inhabitants, as both the Cowl and the Seven Wonders are threatened by the rise of a new superhero-rapidly-turned-supervillain, Tony—or the Justiciar, as he decides to call his superhero-self.
Think we're at the climax yet? Think again: we're not even close. If there's one thing that—more than anything else—cripples the emotional power of this novel, it's the breathless rush to escalate escalate ESCALATE to the next glittering, flashy comic-book threat, leaving no space for anything as mundane as character development.
Although there are glimpses of what could have been. The Blackbird, for example, with her occasional moments of vulnerability and her apparently genuine attachment to Tony, had the potential to be fascinating. And for a while there I thought Christopher was doing something different with Sam Millar and the trope of the hard-bitten detective out for justice. But the flexibly omniscient point of view of the narrative obscures as much as it reveals, and my hopes for character growth were doomed to go unfulfilled in the hectic race to the next shiny explosion. There's the world to save and an alien invasion to thwart, after all!
It's a hell of a ride. Lost along the way are the hints that acquiring superpowers appears to cause people to lose all good judgement in the face of the shiny, shiny temptation that power provides—a critique of the Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch that could have been interesting, had it been permitted some more space for development. As it stands, development is not something that Seven Wonders is terribly interested in: all the surviving characters are essentially the same people at the end as at the beginning, even the Cowl. Take away the special effects and cunningly wrought set-pieces, the snarky dialogue, competent prose, odd coincidences, and explosions—take away the surface sheen, and I'm left with the impression that nothing else remains.
As Shakespeare wrote, "All that glisters is not gold." Seven Wonders glisters, but in the end, it's essentially shallow. Still, it's an entertaining sort of shallow. If you're jonesing for an old-style superhero hit, it could be for you.