Friday, December 29, 2017

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

I’ve been a fan of Marissa Meyer for a while, since I read the first book of the Lunar Chronicles and then proceeded to devour the rest of the series.  Her stories were cute, fun, and excited the teen-aged girl in me.  They were dessert reading.  So, being a fan of comics, when I heard she was going to be doing a super hero story, I was looking forward to it.  I even pre-ordered it months in advance.

Unfortunately, what I found when I read it wasn’t a fun little adventure story with some romantic undertones.  What I found was a bore of a novel that probably wasn’t thought out enough.

A Brief Summary

Nova Artino was six when her family was killed in front of her during the Age of Anarchy.  Taken in by her uncle and a rag-tag group of super villains, she’s raised to hate the super heroes who failed to save them, the Renegades.

Now, a teenager, Nova, also known as Nightmare, is one of few super villains with a secret identity.  After she fails to assassinate the leader of the Renegades, what is left of the Anarchists, the original super villain group from the Days of Anarchy, enlist her to infiltrate the group and act as a spy.

Meanwhile. Adrian Everheart, is experimenting with his own secret.  When he’s not leading his own team of Renegades as Sketch, a super hero capable of bringing his drawings to life, he’s the Sentinel, a mysterious masked stranger, though nobody knows whose side he’s on.

While Nova is learning all about the Renegade’s organization and trying to lead them away from the Anarchists’ nefarious doings as Insomnia, a girl who never sleeps, Adrian is trying to discover who killed his mother when he was a child, and how Nightmare might be connected to the murder.

Suspension of Disbelief

I just could not suspend my disbelief.  This is probably the biggest, most overarching problem for me with Renegades.

During the Age of Anarchy, Gatlon City absolutely goes to the dogs.  The prologue opens with Nova collecting syringes from the alley near her family’s apartment, and her father negotiating with her uncle for some baby aspirin, which is apparently incredibly hard to come by.

Other parts of the novel mention that most people had home births and that most kids born during the Age of Anarchy don’t have official birth certificates, because civil services were all but non-existent. 
The mayor and his family were flat out murdered in the mayoral mansion, and they weren’t the only ones.  But here’s the thing; while this city is going to hell in a hand basket, the rest of the country, the federal government, does nothing?  The army isn’t called in to put these super villains down?  There’s no official emergency relief?

Another aspect that didn’t work for me is that one of the problems with the Renegades taking over most civic duties is that they feel that normal people won’t want to handle their own, more normal emergencies anymore.  This doesn’t make any sense.  The Renegades are stretched thin, which is why there’s still so much crime in the city.  The city is still dangerous.  I can’t believe there are no non-prodigies out there who want to make a difference in their community.  There aren’t any fire departments anymore either, but the city has nine functioning public libraries?  It has schools and community centers, but no police force or fire brigades?

And once again, the rest of the country is cool with the fact that this city has no proper governmental system, no elected officials?  What about other, nearby cities?  And what are all of these normal people still doing there anyway?  The economy’s been destroyed, the local government is in shambles (but the Renegades still collect taxes), the city’s full of crime and there are no proper schools or civil services.  I don’t get how there are functioning utilities within the city.  I understand that some people would not be able to afford to leave and some would be crazy enough to stay, but why isn’t Gatlon City a total ghost town, even ten years later?

The novel doesn't do a great job of realistically explaining these situations.

A Lack of Ordinary Citizens

Another huge problem I’m having is that the citizens of Gatlon City are not active in this story at all.
We have normal people committing crime all over the place, since there aren’t that many super villains around anymore, right?  But we never actually see them doing it, nor do we see the Renegades actually fighting crime.  The closest we get is seeing the Renegade call center, which is dealing with burglaries, but also graffiti and angry convenience store customers.
But the people?  They are, at best, a faceless mob, despite everything supposedly being about them.  I know that the story isn’t about them, but the fight in the story, between the Anarchists and the Renegades, is.  Also, Meyer apparently has time to introduce the reader to tons and tons of prodigies, but the only normal person who has a name (Sampson Cartwright) is a security guard working for the Renegades.  He comes up once and then never again.

This problem is amplified because we never really see any abnormal suffering.  Supposedly, the economy is still totally screwed up, but we start the novel with a huge parade, kids running around playing with toys, adults enjoying themselves in beer gardens.  Meyer never paints a picture of a city in disarray or poverty, except by talking about how much the Renegades have helped in the last ten years and mentioning that some parts of the city are still ruined slums.  This makes it harder for the reader to care about the stakes in this fight.  We can’t see how much these people need help, so how can we really care if they get it?

The little bit we see of the people are their dehumanizing behavior at the Renegade trials and some news commentary after the Renegade parade.  It’s pretty obvious to me that Meyer is trying to get us to empathize with the prodigies, but it’s hard to do that when most of them seem to have better standards of life than the people they serve, the Anarchists want, well, an idealized version of anarchy and barely have loyalty to each other and the Renegades are inching their way into fascism territory.
I sort of hoped for a situation like the one in The Incredibles or The Watchmen coming up, where the people are tired of superheroes and outlaw them altogether.  This did not happen.  The people praise and complain about the Renegades, but take no action against them.

Pacing

The pacing of this book is horrendously slow.  The very first thing the reader is hit with is world-building exposition that lasts for something like five pages, followed by a prologue.  Not even kidding.  The prologue is at least more interesting, but come on.  She starts a novel which should be fairly action-packed, given its subject matter, with what is essentially a voice-over explanation, like the awful Harrison Ford monologue from the opening of Blade Runner. 

The thing with super hero comics is that they’re very dramatic, and usually the stakes are pretty dire.  Nothing about Renegades feels dire.  I mean, even when the Renegades and the Anarchists are duking it out during a crowded parade, there are no fatalities.  None of the big fights result in any deaths, aside from two assassinations (done with guns).  Nothing is particularly epic, there isn’t much showmanship, it’s all sort of nerfed.

There are four major action sequences I can think of, but between them, the story meanders around a couple of mysteries and a PG-rated love story.

I’m not saying the story should be wall-to-wall action, but I found the love story particularly boring.  There was no excitement to it, just two teenagers wondering if they like each other and the occasional “heart racing” moment on par with accidentally touching hands.

I found that pretty disappointing.  I liked Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles a lot, and it had more romantic interludes that I actually really enjoyed.  Nothing about Nova and Adrian’s budding relationship got my inner teenager giddy, it just made me want to get to the next part that was about anything else.

The Descriptions

Sometimes, Meyer increased her pacing issues by overloading me with information.  I’m going to cover the issues with her character introductions in a second, but the other issue was that she would describe things, like how the characters are eating, or what they’re wearing.
Next, the snug black hooded jacket: waterproof and flame-retardant, yet lightweight enough to keep from inhibiting her movements. She zipped it up to her neck and tugged the sleeves past her knuckles before pulling up the hood, where a couple of small weights stitched into the hem held it in place over her brow.
Meyer, Marissa. Renegades (pp. 27-28). Feiwel & Friends. Kindle Edition.
Renegade boots even come up a few times and it’s hard for me to express how little interest I had in them.
“A few years ago a recruit was chasing after a purse snatcher and sprained his ankle,” said Oscar. “So now the uniform comes with boots that have ankle braces, supreme slip-resistant soles, and every other feature they could think to put into them. Great cushion too. You’ll love them.”
Meyer, Marissa. Renegades (p. 212). Feiwel & Friends. Kindle Edition.
I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have included any description, but I really couldn’t care less about how Adrian is crunching his cereal, when what I’m really interested in are things like drama, or even the rules of the Renegades universe.  Anything other than how frustratingly comfortable their boots are.

Plus, she often glosses over the physical descriptions of the characters, spending more time on what they’re wearing than what they actually look like.  Uniforms are very important in the context of comics because they serve as easy visual cues, telling us who everyone is, but in a book they aren’t nearly as useful.  There are some physical descriptors she doesn’t throw in until almost the very end of the novel, which doesn’t work either because in the reader’s mind, characters are already set at that point.

Character Issues: Extensive Cast

This cast is seriously huge.  By chapter seven, we’ve been introduced to at least 22 characters, plus, Adrian, AKA Sketch’s alter alter ego, the Sentinel.  So, with secret identities, that’s probably 36 names to remember, and these names are used almost interchangeably.  I found myself paging back to the list of characters in the beginning of the book, which is never a good sign.

The Renegade council is introduced all at once, riding on the parade float in the Renegade Parade in chapter two, but we don’t actually get a feel for who they are, we just see them, get small explanations of their powers and maybe brief background, and their real names.  However, by the end of that chapter, the only Renegade’s full name I could remember was Kasumi Hasegawa, who is Tsunami.  The reason I can remember that is because hers is the only name in the group that isn’t Anglo-centric.  Everyone else was a blur, which is unfortunate because Meyer refers to her supers by either name they go by, which can get confusing when you can’t remember that Captain Chromium is also Hugh Everheart.  Also unfortunate is the fact that aside from Adrian’s two dads, most of the council is barely there.  I think Kasumi does not actually speak throughout the entire book.  There is also the Anarchists and various smaller Renegade squads with five members each floating around.  It's a mess.

The number of characters involved with the plot shrinks about half way through the book, which helps, but also makes those introductions in the beginning all the more painful.

Character Issues: Two Dimensional Characters

Okay, so we have a huge cast of characters, but unfortunately, most of them aren’t really developed.  If you asked me to name a fundamental difference between Hugh Everheart and Simon Westwood (I had to look that up because I couldn’t remember his name or his alter ego) besides their super powers, I probably couldn’t.  Truth be told, these guys are fairly interchangeable.  I also couldn’t tell you the motivations for most of the characters, or even much about their personalities.  Nova and Adrian are the most developed and they still come off rather flat.  The next step down is the rest of their little Renegade team, and then everyone else, with the exceptions being Leroy (aka Cyanide) and Ingrid (the Detonator), one being a mentor figure and the other being an antagonist.  I guess I’d include the Librarian in this list, but he’s only developed enough to make us care when he’s assassinated.

A cast full of flat, underdeveloped characters makes for some boring, unsympathetic reading.  The cast is just so big that there’s no time to develop everyone.  It’s like one of those ridiculous ensemble movies full of star power that end up being terrible because every story line is totally shallow and under developed, except there are really only two story lines going on here.

Genre or Flavor?

Okay, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in the super hero genre.  I read comics, but my tastes tend to run toward less conventional fare, like The Sandman or Saga.  However, I have read some super hero comics, and I have a basic understanding of the major themes that tend to emerge.
Some of these themes are prejudice and racism, does might make right, noblesse oblige, the loneliness of being different, the choice to conform or remain unique, fear of trusting others, that sort of thing.  These are pretty much staples of most major titles.

Meyer tries to cover some of these topics in Renegades, but misses the mark a lot of the time.
In Renegades, there are a number of normal people who don’t like prodigies, but it’s not like they’re oppressed anymore.  With the rise of Ace Anarchy and the Anarchists, and the Renegades to fight them off, prodigies no longer needed to hide.  So, now, most of the hate for them manifests in normal people sneering when they see one.  But there’s no organized movement, no shady government program.  So, X-Men this is not.

There is no feeling of isolation for super heroes either.  There are hundreds of supers on the team and even more around the world.  Secret identities are mostly a thing of the past, having all been exposed after the Age of Anarchy, though for some reason, people still adopt super hero names anyway.  The Renegades are pretty much as integrated into Gatlon City society as the police are in any other city.  There isn’t much awe-inspiring about what is essentially an overpowered police force.  The Renegades host a company picnic, they probably have an intramural softball league.  What should be god-like is treated as merely slightly above average.  Is the almost Office Space-like set up played with at all?  Nope.  Not really.  Mostly, the kids gush about how great the cafeteria is.

“Wait until you see the cafeteria. They have a mac-and-cheese bar!”
Meyer, Marissa. Renegades (p. 235). Feiwel & Friends. Kindle Edition.
Guys, don’t even get me started on the food.
I’m not saying the underlying themes of the genre aren’t here. I’m saying they’re glossed over, a lot. Almost completely. They are window dressing, almost as though the story already existed and “super heroes” was just the flavor, like a birthday party theme. This actually makes a lot of sense, given the success of the Marvel and DC Universe movies and shows have been seeing recently.

Really, it didn’t feel like a super hero story, it felt like every other teen-oriented action story out there.  Not particularly deep, not particularly interesting.  The one positive I will give is that the love story takes a backseat to the main plot for once, and doesn’t strike me as particularly unrealistic.  This doesn’t make it immune to being cheesy in places though.

Conclusion

I really wanted to like this book.  I really did.  I found the Lunar Chronicles so charming and fun, but Renegades just sort of falls flat.  I know it’s the first book in what I assume will be a trilogy, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.  I quite literally stopped and one point and flipped to the end as a way to motivate myself to finish the book.  It surprised me that so little is accomplished in over 560 and pages.

Nothing has really changed for the Renegades or for the city.  A Renegade scheme is revealed, setting up for the sequel, but overall there isn’t enough character or plot development to get me really excited for it.  In most great trilogies, the first act can stand on its own for the most part, but I really don’t think that’s the case for this book.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed, and probably won’t be pre-ordering the next book.  If it goes on sale, I might pick it up.

Editorial Note:  Apparently, Renegades is going to be part of a duology, not a trilogy as I initially suspected.

Other Useful Information

Bechdel Test: Pass
Helpful Tropes: City of Adventure, Holding Out for a Hero, Imagination-Based Superpower, One Person, One Power, Second Super-Identity, Superhero, Traumatic Superpower Awakening
Links: Website, Goodreads
 
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