Swarm and Nexus by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld – a review

I recently read the second two books in the Zeroes trilogy by Deborah Biancotti, Margo Lanagan and Scott Westerfeld (Swarm and Nexus). Long time blog readers might recall that I read, and enjoyed, the first book in the series a while back.

From Goodreads:

EVERY POWER HAS A DARK SIDE. Keep the secret. Use your power for good. Keep out of trouble. Stick together. Or things will fall apart.

It’s the holiday season, but the celebration at the Zeroes’ underground nightclub is blown apart when two strangers with new powers take to the dance floor. The Zeroes pursue them, only to discover that they’re fleeing an even more sinister power-wielder, Swarm. The Zeroes must learn all they can about this dangerous new player if they are to stay safe.

Meanwhile each of the Zeroes also has their own issues to deal with. Bellwether’s confidence is challenged, and Mob questions the nature of her power. Crash’s conscience gets a workout, and Anon and Scam face harsh truths about belonging. And it’s up to Flicker to pick up the reins and lead the Zeroes into a terrifying showdown.

A terrific sequel with a cracking pace that raises the stakes in this brilliant and unique superheroes series.

From Goodreads:

The Zeroes are in disarray.
One of them has vanished into thin air.
One of them is in prison.
The rest of them are on the most-wanted list.
And something big is brewing.

After defeating Swarm in a breath-taking stand-off, Nate has been arrested for his murder. In prison and isolated, he can’t use his powers of influence at all. Flicker, Chizara, Kelsie and Ethan are on the run and in hiding from the FBI who believe the Cambria Five are domestic terrorists. And Agent Phan and the FBI have a secret weapon up their sleeve – a teenager with a superpower that the Zeroes haven’t encountered yet.

Meanwhile, Sonia Sonic and her growing band of weird-hunters are tracking inexplicable events across the country – and their investigations lead them to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where the celebrating crowds promise enormous power to anyone who can channel it. Time is running out for the Zeroes, but they must learn to trust each other again and combine their powers for good – to avert the looming disaster.

A brilliant, action-packed conclusion to the superb Zeroes series.

All my points from my review of the first book remain true. While it is very young adult perspective, there was enough adult material to hook me in.

I really like the idea of “networked” powers in this series. I was recently talking to a group of young people about the way they engage with social media, and I was blown away by what was essentially the sophisticated network theory analysis that they used to navigate that space. Rather than focus on individual posts or tweets, they seemed to hold a map in their head of a pattern of social media interaction from individuals they followed. They made judgements on authenticity and levels of accuracy based around these patterns. It was fascinating, and made the way the powers in this series work even more interesting as a reflection on this way of seeing the world. It made me feel old at the same time, but that’s my problem not the book’s!

The crisis level ratcheted up at an appropriate pace across the two books, with appropriately more powerful “bad guys” to stretch our heroes. What struck me though was how contained the story telling was. The progression seemed natural. Right up until the end, the stakes were high but not preposterously so. Of course, right at the end everything went a bit bonkers, with world changing consequences, but hey – this is speculative fiction. What’s not to like about a bit of bonkers? I could understand why some people might get put off by the sudden change in pace, but I liked it.

The level of teen angst was kept to a minimum, which I liked. That’s not to say there isn’t angst, but considering everything going on it was appropriate/proportional to the level of crisis.

The narrative voice for each point of view remained very consistent. I assume that the authors probably split up the work so that each author was responsible for different characters, but the overall effect worked. They seemed to work well together, and the work was well edited. If there were seams where one author ended and another began, they weren’t clunky, and I was well and truly able to suspend my disbelief.

Considering how over the top the last part of the last book got, I was happy with the ending. As a reader, I had a good sense of completion, without loose threads irritating me.

Overall, this is a good trilogy and one well worth your time, especially if you’re interested in a millennial take on super powers. Well and truly recommended.

Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti – a review

Australian Women Writers' Challenge 2016This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2016 Reading Challenge. All my 2016 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Zeroes

 

I am a big fan of Australian author Deborah Biancotti’s work. It particular, I really enjoyed a short collection of hers called Bad Power from a few years back (see my review here). Bad Power focused on the downside of having super powers, and ever since reading it I’ve been hoping for a novel set in the Bad Power universe. I’m still waiting for that novel, but let me tell you Zeroes by Deborah Biancotti, Scott Westerfeld and Margo Lanagan is the next best thing.

From Goodreads:

Don’t call them heroes.

But these six Californian teens have powers that set them apart. They can do stuff ordinary people can’t.

Take Ethan, a.k.a. Scam. He’s got a voice inside him that’ll say whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Which is handy, except when it isn’t—like when the voice starts gabbing in the middle of a bank robbery. The only people who can help are the other Zeroes, who aren’t exactly best friends these days.

Enter Nate, a.k.a. Bellwether, the group’s “glorious leader.” After Scam’s SOS, he pulls the scattered Zeroes back together. But when the rescue blows up in their faces, the Zeroes find themselves propelled into whirlwind encounters with ever more dangerous criminals. And at the heart of the chaos they find Kelsie, who can take a crowd in the palm of her hand and tame it or let it loose as she pleases.

Filled with high-stakes action and drama, Zeroes unites three powerhouse authors for the opening installment of a thrilling new series.

I’m not usually a big fan of young adult work. While there is some excellent quality writing in the young adult genre, I find that the themes and characters in the novels are directed (quite correctly) at a much younger market, and as a result they don’t tend to resonate as strongly with me. Zeroes, however, did manage to hook me in. The protagonists are all teenagers, all born in the year 2000 and all in possession of superpowers. But their powers have serious limitations and they screw things up as often as they fix them, and I found that did resonate with me. My own (fading) memories of youth are of uncertainty, inexperience and getting things wrong. I think one of the reasons why I don’t connect with young adult books very much is that there is too much competence amongst the young characters who have no real life experience.

The take on superpowers in Zeroes is very cool, and very 21st century. The bulk of the powers rely on networking effects, amplified impact when groups or crowds are involved. In the age of mobile phones and social media, this move away from the awesomely powerful individual makes a lot of sense and is remarkably engaging.

All of the characters are flawed, there are no pure heroes to be had here. Greed, narcism and one character who is worryingly sociopathic – a full range of negative emotions and motivations are on display. So, I was surprised to find myself feeling a real connection to this set of characters – as a reader I wanted them to overcome their limitations, wanted them to become better. And the authors skilfully guide the character development to a satisfying payoff. No-one qualifies for sainthood by the end of the book, but there is real growth across what is a large cast of characters.

I was interested to see whether a book written by three authors could achieve the right level of consistency for a novel. I was pleased to find that I couldn’t really see the seams in the writing, it did feel like a cohesive book. I have read and enjoyed works by Lanagan and Biancotti, and this book had echoes of both but was very much its own thing. As a writer, I’m interested in their writing process, I understand that they put a lot of emphasis on achieving that consistency.

The plot itself moves along at a good pace, and I thought the authors effectively ratcheted up the tension by creating increasingly high stakes situations and good interpersonal interactions between the characters.

This is a funny book – lots of humour from the characters and plenty of amusing situations. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a strong line in humour, but it was refreshing and served to counteract some of the teenage angst that is necessary in even a well written young adult novel.

There was a good focus on diversity in the novel, with a good gender balance amongst the protagonists and a mix of ethnicities and a disabled character. The novel isn’t preachy about diversity, but I’ve really been enjoying work that portrays a wide range of characters without making a big deal of it, and this book definitely fits that description.

Considering I originally picked up Zeroes partly to be a Biancotti completest, I had a very enjoyable experience reading this book. Highly recommended for young adult readers and people who like their superheroes flawed and very 21st century.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.


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