Friday, August 09, 2013

“Ex-Heroes” by Peter Clines (Del Rey UK/Broadway)

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUKSuperheroes-vs.-Zombies Novel Fails to Impress

Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes, using their superhuman abilities to make Los Angeles a better place.

Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Billions died, civilization fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland.

Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions protect a last few thousand survivors in their film-studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. Scarred and traumatized by the horrors they’ve endured, the heroes fight the armies of ravenous ex-humans at their citadel’s gates, lead teams out to scavenge for supplies—and struggle to be the symbols of strength and hope the survivors so desperately need.

But the hungry ex-humans aren’t the only threats the heroes face. Former allies, their powers and psyches hideously twisted, lurk in the city’s ruins. And just a few miles away, another group is slowly amassing power... led by an enemy with the most terrifying ability of all.

I had high hopes for this novel – mixing superheroes and zombies seems like such an awesome, perhaps even common-sense mélange, yet it had not been done before. So, when the three books arrived on my doorstep, I was eager to get stuck in. While Ex-Heroes had some good bits – the action-scenes, in particular, are well-written – ultimately, I do not think this book was ready for publication. This was a big disappointment.

Ex-Heroes is very much rooted in the super-hero and zombie apocalypse genres. Clines does a fine job of painting the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, and it was never difficult to get a sense of the place and atmosphere when he was writing about the city, it’s few surviving residents, and its shambling hordes.

The novel is also, disappointingly in my opinion, equally rooted in comic book aesthetic of, at a guess, 1990s Marvel – all of the women are super-hot, sexually available, adolescent fantasies. There’s even a “dominatrix-ninja” who doesn’t wear very much at all. This character is Stealth, and Clines overdid her introduction: it is filled with such cliché ideas of what makes someone a genius, for example, and also explanations of how much being stunningly beautiful was something that never mattered to her, and that she was endlessly frustrated that people will only ever see her worth in her looks. Fine, nothing wrong with the latter. But then why on Earth would she design an outfit that accentuates her underwear-super-model figure? And yes, she was an underwear-super-model. I think I get what the author was trying to comment on, but he didn’t do it too well at all. And I may be being charitable…

The novel is meant as pure entertainment, and I can certainly see what the author was trying to do. In many ways, he succeeds, but the end result remains not brilliant. It’s a good, even inspired blend of two popular genres – I’d say more rooted in superhero than zombie sub-genre, though, as it lacks the slow-build, sinister tension of the best zombie tales. It does a good job of tapping in to many wish fulfillment needs of super-hero fans everywhere.

Another major weakness, in my opinion, was the writing. I think it could have been much better written. The story lacked depth, but I can’t deny that I zipped through what I read pretty quickly. Sadly, the characters were unsurprising, some of the “psychology” seemed mixed up or garbled. The “relationships” were bland, relying on gorgeous, sexually aggressive women fawning over the menfolk. It lacked tension. Ultimately, I was rather bored. Which is why I stopped reading.

ClinesP-1-ExHeroesUSWhich is a pity, as I thought there were elements of the narrative and apocalypse-building that were innovative and interesting. For example, the nature of zombism idea is intriguing: the virus/pathogen is actually non-fatal, it just turns people/victims into walking petri dishes, as if they have been “injected with the CDC’s wish list” of the myriad diseases percolating in Los Angeles.

And the action scenes aren’t bad. But the overall momentum, and the level of my interest dwindled quickly, the more I read. Each time I picked it up, I’d easily get through a handful of chapters. But each time it took a bit more effort to pick it back up. I wonder, really, if the novel had been properly formulated before it was written – most of the ideas are there, but I would describe this as an early draft at best. It’s missing development. It lacks chops.

As I mentioned at the start, I was sent the first three novels in the series, which makes me feel a little awkward about disliking it as much as I have, truth be told. Will I read the others? Probably, yes. But I’m in no rush to get to them, so don’t hold your breath for reviews in the near future.

With Ex-Heroes, while Clines has managed to come up with an interesting, original spin (as far as I’m aware) on two very popular genres, the actual story, characters and quality of writing aren’t there. I really wanted to like this, but ultimately, after about 40% of the novel, I just couldn’t read any more. This, in my opinion, was not ready to go to market. A real shame.


Update: The original version of this review included an error. I stated that Ex-Heroes was previously self-published, when in fact it was published through a small-press: Permuted Press. Apologies for the error.


Ex-Heroes – and the sequels Ex-Patriots and Ex-Communication – are out now in the UK (Del Rey) and the US (Broadway).


Book 2 – UK, US


Book 3 – UK, US

The fourth book in the series, Ex-Purgatory, will be published in January 2014. Here are the covers (UK, US):



  1. Please get your facts straight. It was NOT self-published. It was published by Permuted Press, a very well-regarded US horror press that has put out over a hundred books (maybe several hundred). Then the series got so popular it was picked up by Random House in the US.

    Btw, I love this series. Too bad you didn't even FINISH the book so you don't even know how any of the twists turned out. Very very unprofessional imo to review a book YOU HAVEN'T ACTUALLY READ.

    1. I should have added that I am a woman, and thanks so much for the concern-trolling but these books are far from sexist. You are of course entitled to your opinion but it really pisses me off when lazy reviewers who didn't even finish a book crap all over an awesome series like this that actually has strong characters. Fortunately there are smart reviewers like Geek Mom at Wired who get it.

    2. You do realize that the reasons a person didn't finish a book are actually just as valid as the reasons they do, right?

    3. Ms. Anonymous... if a person can't finish a book then that means for that person, the book is an example of bad fiction. Not everyone can like everything, and people ARE allowed to have opinions differing from each other's. So how about you show some respect?

    4. Dear Anonymous,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my review. It's always nice to hear other's opinions, especially if they happen to be opposite to our own. I'm glad you loved the series. We are all entitled to our opinions, tastes.

      What is "concern-trolling"? This is a new term to me.

      Mea culpa over the self-published error. I've never heard of Permuted Press, despite working in publishing and reviewing books for seven years. Not a surprise, though, as I don't tend to read horror. When I bought the original eBook (which I just happened to never get around to reading), I got the impression it was self-pub'd. Apologies.

      I did not actually say the books were sexist. I said "the characters were unsurprising". The description of the female characters reinforces my point about the novels erring rather close to adolescent fantasy-/wish-fulfilment. I didn't use the term "sexist" once, nor did I level that accusation against the author. After all, I do not know him. All I have to go on is the book. The characters were thin, underdeveloped, and (in my opinion) cliche.

      As for not finishing it... I didn't. Should I lie and say that I did? There is a big difference between "not reading a book at all" and "not finishing a book". I was bored. The writing didn't grab me, the story wasn't compelling enough for me to stick around. I'm not sure how it's 'unprofessional' for me to say so.

      As I concluded in the review (perhaps you didn't read that far?), "Clines has managed to come up with an interesting, original spin (as far as I’m aware) on two very popular genres" - this is not a criticism. But, for me (and that is, after all, the crux of any honest review), "the actual story, characters and quality of writing aren’t there. I really wanted to like this, but ultimately, after about 40% of the novel, I just couldn’t read any more. This, in my opinion, was not ready to go to market. A real shame."

      Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    5. "As I concluded in the review (perhaps you didn't read that far?)"
      -- Actually, *I* don't comment on things that I haven't read in their entirety. ;-)

      " I didn't use the term "sexist" once"
      -- No, Stefan, you didn't use that exact precise word "sexist." (Which is why I didn't have it in quotes in my original comment.) But, come on, saying that "all the women are super hot, sexually available adolescent fantasies" certainly implies such. It's also just plain untrue. There are two main female characters in the book. One is Danielle, who is neither super-hot nor sexually available...just a very smart woman who worked for DARPA. The other is Stealth, a standoffish ninja who could not be less "sexually available." As a woman, I appreciated that both of these women are superheroes because of their brains first and foremost. Who else are you referring to? Banzai, a teenager who happened to be sexually active with her own boyfriend? Or are you referring to Lady Bee, the punk/tomboy civilian who is friends-with-benefits with St George? If so I have to wonder why you're not complaining that their respective male partners are hot. I think you have some "issues" here.

      As I said, you are certainly entitled to your opinions. I'm only one of thousands of fans on the author's FB page who would greatly disagree with you, but of course, nothing is going to be liked by everyone. What irritated me is that you seem to want the respect of being a real reviewer while acting like an amateur when it suits you. First of all, you couldn't be bothered to even do a one-line Google search to verify your "impression" that the original book was self-published. (For that matter -- assuming the Del Rey books are similar to the Random House version I have -- the author even mentions the book's publication history right in the acknowledgements.) Then, you critiqued something you read less than HALF of, instead of either sucking it up and finishing the thing, or abstaining from reviewing it.

      As to your comment that you thought it "wasn't ready to go to market"...well, again, as you said it's your opinion...but at this point three different presses (a fairly big independent press and two mega-successful presses) have apparently felt otherwise. My guess is if you had not gone in with the belief that the book was self-published, you would not have been predisposed to judge the book as "not ready for publication" rather than simply "not to your taste."

      Also I also can't help but notice that you haven't even made a correction of the "self-published" remark, even after you were shown to be in error. Again, highly unprofessional.

    6. Thanks for taking the time to comment again.

      I feel there is nothing I can say in response that will in any way "solve" these issues. You have taken considerable exception to my review of a book that clearly means a great deal to you. But I stand by it. I will not retract it. I did not enjoy it enough to finish it. This is a valid consideration in a review of any novel, as you will find on many amateur blogs (among which I consider CR, and have ever considered it thus), but also in national newspapers/magazines review pages. It is in no way "unprofessional".

      As you say, there are thousands of people who love this book and series. Excellent. I'm happy for them. The author and publisher, therefore, have nothing to fear from this negative review, from someone who had hoped it was better. Your evangelism for the author should make him and his publishers very happy. After all, there is nothing better for a book or an author's career than generating passionate responses in favour or against their work.

      However, continuously telling me I am "wrong" and "unprofessional" is not going to change my opinion of the novel, its contents, nor the existence of this review.

      I posted a mea culpa (re: self-published) in my initial response to you, accepting my error, but I have now also updated the post with an Errata note.

    7. Isn't it amazing how hostile people can be to other people simply because they didn't love the same books?

      The world is a strange, strange place.