[Review] Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman,
Pantheon Books.
Some time ago I reviewed Jennifer Estep’s superhero romance Karma Girl, which I wanted to like more than I did and suspected I didn’t like as much as I could have because I wasn’t the right reader for it.
Soon I Will Be Invincible, billed as ‘literary fiction’, is a superhero novel for which I am definitely the right reader.
Doctor Impossible, the world’s smartest man, escapes from prison for the twelfth time, positive that this time he will succeed in taking over the world. After all, one must have goals. Unfortunately, he’s being hunted for the murder of perfect, invulnerable, smug CoreFire, a murder he didn’t actually commit. All he wants to do is assemble the pieces of his diabolical scheme if only the heroes will give him some peace to do it.
Fatale is an accident victim turned amnesiac half-cyborg powerhouse. She doesn’t know who she was before the accident or who recreated her afterwards; her secret government work has dried up; and she’s flat broke. Then she’s recruited by Damsel, leader of the Champions, into the world’s premier and newly-reunited superhero team. Their mission: find Doctor Impossible. Is she up to the job?
Soon I Will Be Invincible is their story, alternately told from both sides of the hero/villain divide.
The novel has a slow start. Doctor Impossible’s first section, which opens the narrative, is entirely exposition, and it’s 21 full pages before dialogue appears. (I like a good supervillain monologue as much as anyone, but…) Once the pace picks up, though, the fairly straightforward plot is enlivened by superb characterization, wry humour, a couple of nice twists, and some fascinating meditations on power, fame and infamy, and the trauma superpowers inflict on the body, psyche, and sense of identity.
Grossman is clearly a man who loves superheroes. You might find, as I did, a trio composed of the invulnerable, superstrong, flying CoreFire, the sword-wielding alien princess Damsel and the martial artist/gymnast/tactician/detective/millionnaire Blackwolf to be a bit on the nose. However, there’s definitely a level where everyone writing superheroes is constructing DC-response fanfic and Grossman consciously plays with archetypes and cliches (an autistic Batman! Right on) instead of faithfully replicating them. Moreover, the protagonists’ backstories and casual references to past adventures and other powered people illuminate a more original world as richly imaginative and grandiosely improbable as anything comics have provided.
A more serious drawback is the lack of ethnic diversity among the heroes. There are a few comically ethnic villains, but all the heroes appear to be inhuman Other (catmen! Aliens!), specifically white American, or undescribed. This lack of description easily lends itself to ‘writing in’ people of colour, but since white is normally the default for superheroes, readers would have to work against their usual assumptions to do so. It’s also a very heteronormative world. Sexuality likewise isn’t visible in every character, but when it appears, it’s invariably straight sex.
However, GRC readers will probably appreciate, as I did, the intelligence and complexity of Grossman’s female characters. Fatale is awesome both immensely competent and uncertain about the ‘real’ her, both determined to prove herself and justifiably uncertain of her place in the team. To take one example of how much thought has gone into her presentation, she’s six foot plus, not built like the ‘wasp-waisted pleasure machines’ she knows female cyborgs are supposed to be. She’s Fatale without the femme. Yet she is a sexual being capable not only of fantasy but of acting on her desires. And her uterus is gone in most comic books, this would kick off an arc focused on how awful it is that she can’t have children because that reduces her essential womanliness. In Soon I Will Be Invincible, it’s an off-hand remark that at least she doesn’t have to worry about periods anymore.
The other women are just as marvelous the stressed, superbly competent Damsel, the amused, invulnerable, former supervillain Lily, the bitter, sad teenage idol Rainbow Triumph and the strange fairy warrior Elphin, charged with a mission she can’t remember in a world centuries out of her time. Which isn’t to say that the men are poorly written only that it’s so rare to find female superheroes like this that I finished the book, hugged it, and went back to read Fatale’s parts again.
This is the superhero novel I’ve been longing to read. Highly recommended.