The superhero era has come and gone. The war has been won, the world’s villains are all behind bars, and the heroes are no longer needed. That doesn’t mean they don’t have problems, though ... and Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, psychologist, is here to help.
The world’s most powerful heroes have been ordered into therapy, and their jobs depend on the results. But therapy only becomes more difficult when Dr. Brain announces the death of the revered Hawk King, a personal mentor to many of Brain’s charges. Bad feelings erupt, dirty secrets emerge, and what seems like a crazy conspiracy theory suddenly becomes a very real threat . . . if only to the sanity of some of the world’s greatest heroes.
There are some truly brilliant things about this book, not least of which is the premise. The novel is written and formatted as a self-help book for superheroes, authored by none other than Dr. Brain herself. The novel is interspersed with brief “psychological” interludes, but mostly relies on Brain’s observations of her case studies: the heroes who become this novel’s main characters and form the backbone of the plot. Oh, and don’t forget to read the advance praise for Unmasked, Brain’s fictional self-help book—it’s hilarious.
The format is more than just a cool gimmick. One of the most impressive things about this novel is just how efficiently Faust uses the self-help format to portray Brain’s character. While I don’t like Brain (more on that later), I’m absolutely confident that I dislike her and doubt her in exactly the ways I’m supposed to. Although the novel isn’t really about her, she’s certainly its most engaging character. The other characters, unfortunately, weren’t portrayed quite so deftly. Let’s start with the small things:
I hate them all.
To be fair, readers aren’t supposed to like these characters. But even aside from spending a whole book with unlikeable characters, there are lots of problems here. For one thing, almost every character uses some kind of dialect. It’s a superficial problem, sure. But it’s also extremely prevalent, and seems to exist for the express purpose of making each character as annoying as possible. In fact, there’s so much emphasis on the characters’ various eccentricities, problems, and annoying habits that some of them initially feel more like caricatures than characters. They do become more believable as the book progresses, and some of them even become more likeable. Some of them, on the other hand, just become more disagreeable.
The biggest problem with all of these unlikeable characters is that there’s just not enough payoff to make enduring them quite worthwhile. The novel’s ending is ambiguous, and while it’s appropriate in a lot of ways, it works more on an intellectual level than a visceral one. This applies especially to Brain herself—I was sure that Faust’s brilliant portrayal of the narrator was leading up to something spectacular, and in the end Brain’s role doesn’t matter all that much.
Even so, this book is absolutely worth the read. There are some interesting ideas here, and some aspects are very well done indeed. At times, though, reading it might feel more like work than play, and you might experience a little disappointment along the way.