I’m pretty sure you already know who I am. As for everyone else… I don’t think there are enough people left to make a secret identity worth the effort.
-St. George, Ex-Heroes
Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines has been on my reading list for a while now, but I was initially reluctant to pick it up for some reason. I suppose I (wrongly) assumed it would be a knock-off of Marvel Zombies, but the main reason was probably that we’re all a little bored of zombies by now. Zombies have infiltrated every aspect of pop-culture, and are so commonplace they’re hardly interesting anymore. That’s why Peter Clines did the smart thing and made this story more about the super powered protectors than the undead hordes outside their fortress.
Ex-Heroes spends most of its time in the “Now,” two years after the first zombie attack. We follow the super powered protectors of The Mount, a film studio in LA which has been converted to a survival compound by the super heroes and the survivors they’re sworn to protect. These heroes deal with dwindling supplies, the encroaching undead, and a hostile group of survivors led by a gang called “The Seventeens.” We are also occasionally treated to flashback “Then” chapters, which show us the early days of the zombie apocalypse and double as origin stories for the super powered characters, both living and undead.
Splitting the plot like this allows Clines to slowly release details about the world his heroes inhabit. Occasionally, the “Then” portions are told by characters who are dead in the “Now,” or who don’t get as much screen time as other heroes. It’s also a great way to introduce their origins, powers, flaws, and motivations. This way, each character is more than just a different set of powers and are actually unique and interesting.
While some of these characters are obviously stand-ins for more famous super heroes, Clines manages to keep them fresh and interesting. Seemingly based on Superman, Saint George (AKA the Mighty Dragon) is immediately more relatable than the Big Blue Boy Scout, and struggles with his role as a symbol of hope for the survivors. There are also more original characters like Midknight, who controls a chilling darkness that knocks out electronics, or Gorgon, who waged a one man war against The Seventeens even before the world ended. He can steal the strength of his opponents with his Evil Eye, knocking them unconscious and giving himself superhuman strength and durability.
Unfortunately, not all the characters are as fleshed out or interesting as the heroes. For the most part, the rest of the survivors are forgettable and exist only to feed the zombies. Few of them are even given names, and are instead given quick descriptors such as “unibrow” or “the tattooed man.” There are a couple of exceptions to this, but even these characters are one-dimensional and don’t get much time in the book. I’m not asking that we spend as much time with them as our protagonists, but it would have been nice to see a bit more of those that our heroes are protecting.
As most of the story takes place in Hollywood, there are plenty of pop culture references littered throughout the book. This is a little odd, as a surprising amount of characters have intimate knowledge of the original Doctor Who, comic books, and cartoons. The survivors of The Mount also compete for celebrity kills, claiming points for killing the most famous ex-celebrity. This does date the story a bit, and I found myself thinking that I hadn’t heard of so-and-so in years. However, it’s a fun aspect of the world and works well with the characters. It will also undoubtedly appeal to the target demographic of a book that has superheroes crushing zombie skulls with impunity.
Speaking of crushing skulls, the action in Ex-Heroes is fast, easy to follow, and contains plenty of memorable hits. There are even a handful of one-liners, which work with varying degrees of success. Though not a gorefest, the author doesn’t shy away from descriptively ripping characters to shreds or showing heroes beat zombies to a pulp with other zombies. The final climactic battle between The Mount and the Seventeens contains awesome moments of heroes, living and undead, literally taking chunks out of one another.
Another thing I found refreshing was that we actually get the origins of the zombie epidemic. Without giving away too much, this is tied into the primary threat the characters face, and moves the story forward based on the pasts of certain heroes. It’s a great touch that helps to bring things full circle while continuing to flesh out the characters.
Ex-Heroes isn’t going to single handedly revive the zombie genre, but it is a ton of fun with memorable characters, great super powered fights, and interesting plot devices. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone looking for a good summer read, not just someone who likes super heroes, or zombies either. I had a great time reading this one, and it’s given me a lot of inspiration for my upcoming game of Rotted Capes.
If you like Ex-Heroes, check out its sequels Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communicated, and Ex-Purgatory.
You can purchase Ex-Heroes at your preferred retailer below, or wherever books are sold:
Barnes & Noble