Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States on April 7, 2012
When it comes to writing fiction, Peter Clines is an abstract artist. A brand new author who dares to defy the conventional in order to find his own unique style of writing. His debut Ex-Heroes was anything but ordinary, it combined the traditional zombie splatter-fest with superhero fiction, it was the kind of story you'd expect to come from a graphic novel. No, it technically wasn't original, but Clines was the first I've seen to truly do the concept justice, and now he's back with a sequel, Ex-Patriots. Despite some missteps, fans of Ex-Heroes should be satisfied.
With communication established with a U.S. Army, it would seem it's time for the superheroes to hang up their coats and let them take over as the guardians of Los Angeles's survivors, yet appearances can be deceiving. The creation of super-soldiers is merely the beginning, what's really going on at Project Krypton? Can the United States Army be trusted? And are they the real enemy?
A personal criticism I had for Ex-Heroes was its run-of-the-mill storyline. It found its own identity towards the latter half, but for the most part Ex-Heroes was a very strong character driven story instead of a plot-driven one. Ex-Patriots on the other hand doesn't suffer from a typical zombie apocalypse plot that you've probably already seen a million times already. The story this time is definitely strong enough to stand on its own without the added awesome factor of superheroes fighting zombies. That being said, there's a bizarre story-arc that's completely dropped without giving any further exposition or closure. The book's synopsis describes the inhabitants of the Mount growing irrationally dissatisfied with living under the heroes' leadership. There are a mere two scenes that correlate with this plot-thread, then it's unceremoniously dropped, making the whole thing amount to nothing. Why this was on the book's synopsis, let alone in the book is beyond me.
An opportunity that I felt Clines didn't quite nail in the last book was showing the decline of moral codes in the individual heroes. It's a characteristic from the zombie genre that would have had an interesting effect on superheroes. It would have tied the two genres ever closer and given the title Ex-Heroes a deeper meaning. In Ex-Patriots, Clines instead uses the U.S. Army to demonstrate a collapse in proper ethics. Despite several satirical diatribes made about the cliché nature of the plot, it does eventually divert its course in an interesting new direction that I doubt anyone will see coming.
The key aspects which made Ex-Heroes so incredible was its insane premise and its believably flawed characters. Each individual superhero was so well characterized that it easily saved the book from an average storyline. Ex-Patriots seems to be the opposite from its predecessor, forgoing the incredibly strong characterization for a better plot. It's an interesting gamble that I don't think was for the better. Each of the heroes was previously characterized in a very peculiar fashion, through personal flashback "THEN" chapters from the viewpoint of their first-person perspectives. It was a unique method of storytelling that worked beautifully. It really fleshed out each of the superheroes' personas, origins, and experiences as crime fighters. By the end, each hero was well characterized and really melded together as a team. The format returns for Ex-Patriots but it isn't as well utilized this time. The various super-soldiers and military personal in which the flashbacks elaborate upon simply aren't very interesting. St. George and the other heroes stole the show in the last book, these other characters simply pale in comparison. Their personalities range from bratty, rude, to insufferably annoying; a certain flashback probably broke a record for the most dropped F-Bombs and use of vulgar insults at female promiscuity.
The problem with the flashbacks focusing on the military personal is that the original superheroes feel less developed than in the first book. They each feel like caricatures for superhero archetypes rather than the flawed human beings which Clines did an excellent job illustrating. This doesn't mean they're any less interesting, I still tipped my hat at St. George's honor, held my sides laughing at Zzzap's pop-culture references, and marveled at Stealth's cunning superhuman sense of analysis. Danielle a.k.a Cerberus was the only character to undergo any development or retain her original flawed nature. Clines also needs to seriously reconsider how he implements minor characters into his narrative. Offering nothing more than an anonymous group of names isn't giving the reader characterization or any reason to be concerned for their safety. I couldn't even tell that the character Billy was a woman at first.
A few new hero characters are introduced, though one of them works better than the others. The first is The Driver; a wily kid from the disbanded Seventeens simply looking to do some good with his powers. He's a welcome addition, though his introduction is a very obvious set up for a deus ex machina. The second new addition is Captain Freedom, whose characterization is absolutely all over the place and frankly isn't very interesting. One moment he's a no-holds brawler who punches first and asks questions later, then he's an honorable pacifist who only uses force when necessary. Like the rest of the super-soldiers he's very generic and pales in comparison to the other superheroes. I can see him becoming more interesting in the third novel if the ending is any indication, but for the majority of the book I didn't care much for him.
My critiques may give off the impression that I dislike this book but that simply isn't the case, this is a book that absolutely needs to be read. Like Ex-Heroes, there simply isn't anything quite like it. I'll say it again, Peter Clines is an artist who defies nearly all contemporary guidelines in order to find his own unique style. We need to reward daring people like this who are passionate about following their own direction, even if it may or may not catch on. He didn't dumb-down his vision for a wider audience, he stuck to his guns and has earned my respect for it.
Oh lest we forget Peter Clines's delightfully dark sense of humor. He's created a very interesting balancing act between illustrating an entertaining story with large stakes, while at the same time not taking itself completely seriously, even going as far as to parody its own ludicrous premise. The infamous "dead celebrity" running gag from Ex-Heroes returns, along with cynical jabs at overused cliches, and several pop-culture references. A particular Transformers joke had me cracking up with laughter. It lightens the mood considerably from what would otherwise have been a very downtrodden and morose atmosphere. It's the sign of an author who truly has fun as a writer.
Ex-Patriots isn't quite as good as Ex-Heroes, but it's still a one of kind experience that can't be found anywhere else. The flashbacks weren't as compelling this time due to their focus on less interesting characters, I would have preferred more attention being paid to the original characters while seamlessly implementing the new ones. But this misstep doesn't stop Ex-Patriots from being something truly special. It's a uniquely realized homage to zombies, superheroes, mad science, and pop-culture all wrapped up with a deviously twisted sense of humor. How could you go wrong with that?