I've long been a fan of John Scalzi. He does what no author does, in my experience. He takes iconic concepts in speculative fiction and develops stories that explore their hidden nooks and crannies. He did this with his tribute to Star Trek with Redshirts. Recently he wrote the Kaiju Preservation Society and how it went about looking after Godzilla-like creatures. Now he's gone James Bond on us. We find out what it's like to be a super villain, complete with volcanic lair and a cat or two.
Another reason for my love of his stories is the balance he maintains between humour and excitement. It's not easy. His topics generate excitement readily enough. Any story with rampaging monsters, space battles and the like are going to have lots of ways to keep your reader turning the next page. But for there to be humour as well, that's a different thing completely. The humour must be grounded. We need to believe in the premise.
To sustain this belief is even more difficult. It can only be done one way. The story's characters need to be engaging and they need to be real. The premise can be fantastical. The characters cannot.
Scalzi achieves this perfectly with his protagonist in Starter Villain. Charlie is a nice guy. Life has treated him badly. He'd been made redundant from his job as a business journalist and he's earning a living as a substitute teacher. Except it's hardly a living. He's divorced and lives with his cat, Hera. His step-siblings want the family home sold but that would leave him homeless. And there we are, engaged and rooting for someone who needs help. He's real. We know people like this.
Into Charlie's plight steps someone who turns his life upside down. To avoid spoilers, I'm going to keep things vague from this point. Suffice to say, Charlie rapidly discovers himself in a very different life, as a super villain. At least, in a company which deals with other super villains. And yes, his base is a volcanic island. Even here, Scalzi makes a point of explaining how such a thing is possible. He leaves you wondering if such a sequence of events could have happened. It's not impossible!
Of course, events unfurl with increasing speed. Poor Charlie is faced with extreme dangers and his life is placed at risk repeatedly. But that need for credibility is there. With his background established, Charlie deals with things using his life experiences. We believe that a failed journalist cum substitute teacher might work things out as he does. Even when they are wonderfully bizarre.
If, like me, you enjoy stories that make you giggle while you are frantically turning the page, you will love Starter Villain and all Scalzi stories. He is unique in his style and the kind of stories he writes. I loved this one especially because of the way it tips its hat at so many of the classic Bond moments. It's fair to say I will never look at cats in the same way again. Or dolphins for that matter too!
I'm grateful to @NetGalley and PanMacmillan for an ARC of this book. It is released in September. I strongly recommend you get a copy!