Fiction Reviews

Starter Villain

(2023) John Scalzi, Tor, £14.99, trdpbk, 265pp, ISBN 978-1-509-83542-3


Charlie Fitzer's uncle Jake Baldwin had just died of pancreatic cancer, which was to be a boon, both to Charlie and his white cat. Charlie's life as a former journalist and current supply teacher was going nowhere, though he did have ambitions to own a downtown pub. Uncle Jake was, though, rich being the head of a national multi-story car park business, even if he had been out of Charlie's life since he was five years old.  If Charlie could manage Uncle Jake's funeral, then he'd inherit Jake's business empire.

The funeral itself turned out to be odd with cards sent wishing Jake would rot in hell and people checking that the body was in fact dead: one person even stabbed the corpse to be sure.!

After it was over, Charlie discovered that Jake's business had been being a super-villain with a headquarters deep in an island volcano. But being a super-villain is not like that portrayed in James Bond films, except having a white cat did seem de rigueur. There was no threatening nations with lasers: nations were often among a super-villain's best customers. And having billions in wealth was not all that it was cocked up to be: you could not spend it all without wrecking the global economy and upsetting some of your best customers.

There was much Charlie had to learn. Though, he was surprised to find out that he did have an intelligent cat to help him….!

John Scalzi is best known for being a US master of space opera but he has also written some comedy SF/F novels including the Hugo winning RedShirts.  Having said that, his comedic novels have been a tad hit or miss.  Here, fortunately for us, Starter Villain is more one of his hits.

The first half of the novel concerns Charlie Fitzer finding out about his inheritance and the super-villain business. Here, Scalzi's world-building shines especially with regards to the economics of villainy: it got me wanting the man to partner with an economist to write a textbook!

The second half sees our protagonist encounter his peer super-villains at their annual congress and all that ensures from that: apparently – not surprisingly – here Uncle Jake had a history.

I have to confess that I came to Starter Villain with some misgivings. The cover and the blurb evoke cinematic James Bond imagery. Bearing in mind that the Bond films, entertaining though they may be, are a pale pastiche of the gritty, post-war, Ian Fleming novels, I was not sure I was up for a pastiche of a pastiche. Indeed, I was contemplating adding this to our books received list for our book review panel to consider taking. However I dipped in and obviously became hooked as three reading sessions later I had finished it.

This may not be this author's best work – as indicated I consider his hard-ish SF, space opera much better – but as a light read it does the business. And of course, Scalzi is the master of spoken banter and nothing has changed here.

Jonathan Cowie


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