SUPERPOWERS 

by David J. Schwartz

Three Rivers Press

978-0-307-39440-8

378/$14.95/June 2008

Superpowers
Cover by Maria Elias

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


David J. Schwartz examines what happens to five college students who suddenly find themselves with extrahuman abilities in Superpowers. Schwartz isnít concerned with how these kids get their powers, but rather how the powers change them and how they decide to use them. The five members of the crew, Harriet Bishop, Caroline Bloom, Charlie Frost, Mary Beth Layton, Jack Robinson are each gifted with a different ability: invisibility, flight, telepathy, strength, and speed. And each comes with its own drawbacks.

One of the biggest issues the characters have regards keeping their identities secret.  When they aren't aware of each other, even though they are friends, they try to keep their powers from others who have the same powers.  Naturally that doesn't last and they wind up pow-wowing about how best to use their powers.  These characters live in a world in which comics exist, but they have a varying level of knowledge of the superhero genre, essentially not knowing more than could be gleaned from pop culture, which gives Schwartz a chance to explain the background to readers also unfamiliar with superhero comics. He is able to do it in a natural manner as Mary Beth researched the topic.

Of course once the characters learn of each others abilities, they must figure out how to deal with them and the world at large.  They quickly learn that while Clark Kent or Peter Parker might be able to keep their identities a secret, it isn't quite as easy for them, especially since in the real world they inhabit people, whether police, reporters, or just neighbors, are actively pursuing their secrets.  And while those identities are important, even more important are the characters' problems, whether a dying father, a distant mother, or divorced parents, the characters must deal with those issues and more, and they find that having superpowers doesn't necessarily mean being able to cope with reality any better.

The superpowers also have their own drawbacks.  Mary Beth has to be careful about her strength to avoid injuring people she doesn't mean to or inadvertently damaging property. Charlie must constantly strive to tune out the noisy thoughts of those around him. Jack learns the hard way that super speed has its own, more insidious drawback.  These problems are, in many ways as insurmountable as the more mundane issues the characters have to deal with.

Superpowers is a fantasy, but it isn't a wish fulfillment fantasy.  Schwartz's characters must deal with the world around them, and, setting the story in 2001 telegraphs some things about his story, but Schwartz carefully avoids falling into the trap he potentially set for himself.  His characters don't, can't, fight off the terrorist threat against the United States and the attacks leave them  feeling as helpless as any other American in its aftermath.

Schwartz's novel is a fun book to read, and lacking any supervillains for the characters to fight has a very different vibe from other superhero stories.  At times this almost makes the story seem to ramble, but Schwartz is good at pulling things together.  The characters, and their relationships to each other and to the outside world are really what moves the novel forward and Schwartz keeps those interesting throughout, making the reader care about their lives and the problems, super and mundane, that they face.


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