You are going to have a lot of fun
By. CT Phipps
I love me some superhero fiction. As much as I love comic books as a medium, I feel like superheroes tend to get to stretch their legs when they move beyond serialized sequential art. Part of this is because they more often are allowed to have character growth, definitive endings, and stories that just don’t bleed into the next volume.
As the author of the extremely popular Supervillainy Saga, I’ve done a lot of research into prose superhero fiction and have read literally hundreds of examples of the genre. You can check out my Goodreads if you don’t believe me. Some of the books stand a cut above the rest and I thought I’d share an article on what I perceive to be the best of the best. Better still, the books you’d probably enjoy if you wanted to get into the subgenre. Pick any one of them and I’m sure you’ll have a great time.
I should note that I haven’t included any books starring the world’s most famous superheroes. First, that’s a cheat and second, they don’t need the additional publicity. It also doesn’t take advantage of the biggest advantage of prose fiction that these characters belong to the author rather than the machine that produces them.
Soon I will be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Synopsis: Doctor Impossible, evil genius, diabolical scientist, wannabe world dominator, languishes in a federal detention facility. He’s lost his freedom, his girlfriend, and his hidden island fortress.
Over the years, he’s tried to take over the world in every way imaginable, using doomsday devices of all varieties (nuclear, thermonuclear, nanotechnological) and mass mind control. He’s traveled backwards in time to change history, forward in time to escape it. He’s commanded robot armies, insect armies, and dinosaur armies. A fungus army. An army of fish. Of rodents. Aliens. All failures. But not this time. This time it’s going to be different.
Fatale is a rookie superhero on her first day with the Champions, the world’s most famous superteam. She’s a patchwork woman of skin and chrome, a gleaming technological marvel built for the next generation of warfare. Filling the void left by a slain former member, we watch as Fatale joins a team struggling with a damaged past, having to come together in the face of unthinkable evil.
Soon I Will Be Invincible is a thrilling first novel, a fantastical adventure that gives new meaning to notions of power, glory, responsibility, and (of course) good and evil.
Review: The first superhero book I ever read and one that left the biggest impression by the brother of the guy who wrote The Magicians. This is the story of Doctor Impossible, a Lex Luthor meets Doctor Doom-esque villain who suffers from Malign Hypercognition Disorder. What does that mean? He’s an evil genius. He can’t not try to take over the world. Opposing him is FATAL, a beautiful cyborg who is a new hero and awkwardly thrust into a group of Teen Titans-style heroes (who haven’t been teens for a while). They’ve been at it for decades but one day, well, Corefire (AKA Superman’s analog) dies and everything changes—or does it?
Dreadnought by April Daniels
Synopsis: Danny Tozer has a problem: She just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero. Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she’s always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.
It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.
She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderer – a cyborg named Utopia – still haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.
Review: Superheroes are inherently escapist fantasy. They are stories that somehow, someway, we can our best selves and use that to help the world. April Daniels successfully relates that to the trans experience with a bit more success than the X-men by being more literal. Danny Tozer has been in hiding about her true identity for her entire life and when she receives the power of Dreadnought, world’s greatest hero, it transforms her into the beautiful powerful paragon she was always meant to be. However, is the world ready to accept a trans hero? Certainly, her family isn’t.
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Synopsis: From the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Mistborn Trilogy, Brandon Sanderson, comes the first book in a new, action-packed thrill ride of a series – Steelheart. Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics.
But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his will.
Nobody fights the Epics…nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.
And David wants in. He wants Steelheart – the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David’s father. For years, like the Reckoners, David’s been studying, and planning – and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.
He’s seen Steelheart bleed.
And he wants revenge.
Review: It would be a poor list without including one of my favorite genre writers. Steelheart, first book of the Reckoners trilogy, deals with a world where superheroes are real and they’re all evil. For whatever reason, gaining a power turns you into a sociopathic monster. Steelheart is the strongest of these heroes and our protagonist wants to take him and every other superhero down. However, things are not what they seem but when are they ever? A great standalone read but also great as part of a trilogy of books.
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines
Synopsis: Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes. Vigilantes. Crusaders for justice, using their superhuman abilites to make Los Angeles a better place. Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Despite the best efforts of the superheroes, the police, and the military, the hungry corpses rose up and overwhelmed the country. The population was decimated, heroes fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland like so many others.
Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions must overcome their differences and recover from their own scars to protect the thousands of survivors sheltered in their film studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. The heroes lead teams out to scavenge supplies, keep the peace within the walls of their home, and try to be the symbols the survivors so desperately need. For while the ex-humans walk the streets night and day, they are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group has grown and gained power. And they are not heroes.
Review: Ex-Heroes has the delightfully batshit premise of superheroes vs. zombies in a world where the latter has won. The last superheroes in the world have gathered in Los Angeles and done their best to keep as many humans alive as possible. However, the simple fact is the undead are still around and it seems like a hopeless situation. The first book has some unnecessary edgelord elements that it backs away from in later books, but the heart of the book is strong: the characters are just likable.
Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain by Richard Roberts
Synopsis: Penelope Akk wants to be a superhero. She’s got superhero parents. She’s got the ultimate mad science power, filling her life with crazy gadgets that even she doesn’t understand. She has two superpowered best friends. In middle school the line between good and evil looks clear. In real life nothing is that clear. All it takes is one hero’s sidekick picking a fight, and Penny and her friends are labeled supervillains. In the process Penny learns a hard lesson about villainy: She’s good at it.
Criminal masterminds, heroes in power armor, bottles of dragon blood, alien war drones, shape-shifters, and ghosts – no matter what the superpowered world throws at her, Penny and her friends come out on top. They have to. If she can keep winning, maybe she can clear her name before her mom and dad find out.
Review: Quite possibly the single most adorable superhero books ever made and ones I almost put on the essential list. The Inscrutable Machine is a trio of superpowered teens who wanted to become superheroes in middle school but have been labeled supervillains. Harmless adorable supervillains. Penny Akk is embracing it with gusto, though, and each of the stories told about the characters is great. Eventually, the books
move onto new junior high and high school characters but remain deeply fun as well as harmless.
The Roach by Rhett Bruno
Synopsis: A string of killings. An identity stolen. Only he can find the truth.
Reese Roberts was the guardian of Iron City. Its fearless protector. The only one willing to do whatever it takes…until he was shot on the streets and left paralyzed from the waist down. Now, the vigilante known as the Roach has disappeared. Faded into legend.
It’s been years since Reese could take on crime and clean up the streets. He’s a shriveled old drunk, living like a hermit and waiting for his life to end. All that’s left to do is wallow in the mistakes that led him here. To wonder if he went too far.
But when a copycat steals his suit and takes justice into his own hands, a new killer emerges, leaving brutal messages behind. He wants to eliminate the Roach for good this time.
It’s time for Reese to re-emerge from his shell and fight back. Who else can stop the flurry of killings? Definitely not the corrupt police department. Iron City needs the Roach again. Only, this time, he’ll need to save it without his legs.
Review: On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Please Don’t Tell My Parents is The Roach. Reese Roberts was once the Batman-esque protector of Iron City. Except he was a lot meaner and nastier than Batman, barring the Tim Burton and Frank Miller ones. Still, he protected the innocent up until he was paralyzed from the waist down. It’s a fascinating story of disability, struggle, and old fashioned superheroism with an edge. Very dark but very enjoyable.
Forging Hephaestus by Drew Hayes
Synopsis: Gifted with meta-human powers in a world full of capes and villains, Tori Rivas kept away from the limelight, preferring to work as a thief in the shadows. But when she’s captured trying to rob a vault that belongs to a secret guild of villains, she’s offered a hard choice: prove she has what it takes to join them or be eliminated.
Apprenticed to one of the world’s most powerful (and supposedly dead) villains, she is thrust into a strange world where the lines that divide superheroes and criminals are more complex than they seem. The education of a villain is not an easy one, and Tori will have to learn quickly if she wants to survive. On top of the peril she faces from her own teacher, there are also the capes and fellow apprentices to worry about, to say nothing of having to keep up a civilian cover.
Most dangerous of all, though, are those who loathe the guild’s very existence. Old grudges mean some are willing to go to any length to see the guild turned to ash, along with each one of its members. Even the lowly apprentices.
Review: Drew Hayes is the undisputed master of indie superhero fiction, which is a somewhat specifically sized pond but no less a kingdom. The Superpowered series and Corpies are both extremely fun, but this is the one that stands above the rest. There’s been a treaty between the villains and heroes for a long time, almost to the point there’s peace, but this is a situation that cannot last. An apprentice supervillain and the world’s strongest man are about to find out how fragile the world they live in is.
Wearing the Cape by Marion G. Harmon
Synopsis: Who wants to be a superhero?
Hope did, but she grew out of it. Which made her superhuman breakthrough in the Ashland Bombing, just before starting her freshman year at the University of Chicago, more than a little ironic. And now she has some decisions to make.
Given the code-name “Astra” and invited to join the Sentinels, Chicago’s premier super-team, will she take up the cape and mask and become a career superhero? Or will she get a handle on her new powers (superstrength has some serious drawbacks) and then get on with her life plan?
In a world where superheroes join unions and have agents, and the strongest and most photogenic ones become literal supercelebrities, the temptation to become a cape is strong. But the price can be high – especially if you’re “outed” and lose the shield of your secret identity.
Becoming a sidekick puts the decision off for awhile, but Hope’s life is further complicated when The Teatime Anarchist, the supervillain responsible for the Ashland Bombing, takes an interest in her. Apparently as Astra, Hope is supposed to save the world. Or at least a significant part of it.
Review: Wearing the Cape is about a world where superpowers appeared in an event called the Breakthrough. Hope Corrigan gains the power of Supergirl when she barely survives a terrorist attack and immediately tries to figure out how superheroes work. A lot of attention is paid to how superheroes “could” work in a semi-plausible world. I also really like Hope, she is a noble and goodhearted heroine but still very believable. The story is also interesting, involving time travel in such a way as to not actually be confusing, as well as asking what is the best response to a transformative event in society.
Velveteen Versus The Junior Super-Patriots by Seanan McGuire
Synopsis: “How dare you? I never asked for you to hunt me down!” No, Velma Martinez hadn’t. But when you had once been Velveteen, child super-heroine and one of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, you were never going to be free, even if your only power was to bring toys to life. The Marketing Department would be sure of that.
So it all came down to this. One young woman and an army of misfit toys vs. the assembled might of the nine members of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division who had come to take her down.
They never had a chance.
Velveteen lives in a world of superheroes and magic, where men can fly and where young girls can be abducted to the Autumn Land to save Halloween. Velma lives from paycheck to paycheck and copes with her broken-down car as she tries to escape from her old life.
It’s all the same world. It’s all real. And figuring out how to be both Velveteen and Velma is the biggest challenge of her life, because being super-human means you’re still human in the end.
Join us as award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes us through the first volume of Velveteen’s – and Velma’s – adventure.
Review: Velveteen Versus is one of my favorite book series on this list but sadly is only available on audiobook format as well as online (link: https://seananmcguire.com/velhome.php). Poor Velveteen was sold by her parents to the Super Patriots Corporation. Now an adult and horribly traumatized, she wants to live a normal life, but the corporation never lets any of its assets away. I really enjoyed the book and suggest purchasing all of them on Audible.
SCPD – The Case of the Claw by Keith R.A. Decandido
Synopsis: The great metropolis of Super City is the home of dozens of costumed heroes: Spectacular Man, the Terrific Trio, the Bruiser, the Superior Six, and more.
When the heroes are done punching out the villains, it’s left to the stalwart men and women of the Super City Police Department to restrain them, arrest them, and hope that this time there’s enough evidence to actually convict them.
SUPER CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT
THE CASE OF THE CLAW
The mutated spree killer known as the Claw has returned, leaving bloody victims all over Super City. While Homicide detectives try to find out who the Claw really is, uniformed officers must deal with the Bolt’s escape from the drunk tank, and the bumblings of aspiring hero Knight Dude. Meanwhile, the Superior Six claim they’ll cooperate with the police and stop the Claw – but they are busy fighting the Brute Squad and stonewalling the cops. The SCPD must find out the Claw’s deadly secret, before he claims another victim!
Review: Super City Police Department is a wonderful collection of novels dealing with the titular cities’ cops as they struggle to keep up with the outright surreal crimes always being committed around us. The Case of the Claw is the first of these and probably the most enjoyable. I’ve always loved Keith RA Decandido’s work in Star Trek and he brings his love of the superhero genre to every page.
Andrea Vernon and the Corporation for Ultrahuman Protection by Alexander C. Kane
Synopsis: Think superheroes are tough? Try having one for a boss, or co-worker. That’s the predicament Andrea Vernon finds herself in as the heroine of Alexander C. Kane’s debut audiobook. Drowning in debt, and forced to move back into her parents’ Queens apartment, Andrea starts looking for a job. Luckily for her, she finds herself recruited—well, really kidnapped—by the Corporation for UltraHuman Protection (C.U.P.), an organization that deploys superheroes. Suddenly Andrea must contend with co-workers who can shoot lightning from their fingertips, face the imminent destruction of humanity, and juggle a fledgling romance with a giant lumberjack. It’s all in a day’s work for the would-be novelist turned superstar secret
Audible Hall of Fame narrator Bahni Turpin is perfectly cast as a normal person finding herself in abnormal circumstances. Turpin brings to life an entire cast of quirky characters, along with their heroically funny antics in the cubicle next door. If you’ve ever wondered what a genetically altered rhinoceros sounds like, or needed to take a break from your own office drudgery, this is the comedy for you.
Review: Andrea Vernon is a Haitian American with a love of travel and an inability to keep a job. So, it comes as a great shock when she ends up semi-voluntarily recruited to be a secretary for the world’s largest private superhero corporation. Developing a relationship with one of the superheroes, Andrea soon finds herself swept in a variety of insane and hilarious but no less life-threatening situations. I enjoyed all three of these books on audiobook format and recommend them that way for their fantastic narration.
The Superhero Detective by Darius Brasher
Synopsis: Look, I get it: I’m not your typical superhero. I don’t leap tall buildings, I’m not a billionaire playboy, and I didn’t get bitten by a radioactive spider. Plus, I don’t wear tights. Where the heck would I keep my gun?
But don’t get it twisted: I, private detective Truman Lord, am still very much a superhero. If my gun doesn’t get you, my powers surely will. I’m thinking about using that as my catchphrase. Don’t try to steal it. I copyright my stuff.
When Eileen hired me to stop a former lover from blackmailing her, I thought it would be a simple matter of using sweet reason to persuade him to stop. I call my right fist “sweet”; my left one is “reason.” But, when people started turning up dead and supervillains came out of the woodwork, I was soon investigating a murder case where I was the next target. Someone wanted me dead.
I hoped to foil their objective. “Foil” is superhero and detective-speak for “punch them in the face.”
Review: Darius Brasher has a mastery of writing superhero stories that are short, easy to digest, and thoroughly entertaining. Which one of them to start with was a hard call but I choose the Superhero Detective that is honestly more noir than superhero. However, that’s what makes these books the best as they follow the investigation of the sordid underbelly of superheroes. Sex, lies, and blackmail to keep one’s public image clean.