BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A mysterious threat to Arcadia forces the last superhero to choose between being a husband and saving the world.
PROS: Superhero adventure with heart, mystery, and immersive action that makes reading about these characters a moving experience.
CONS: The prose may take too many liberties in what the reader understands to be happening, and the mystery of The Blue may be too slow of a burn to hold some reader’s attention.
BOTTOM LINE: May require more concentration and patience than some readers will give, but if they do, they’ll be rewarded with a philosophical gem on heroes, sacrifice, and the meaning of life in a corrupt world.
I don’t read comic books and I’m not really a fan of superheroes. That said, I can appreciate a tremendous cover, and was intrigued by the premise of a world where all but one of the superheroes gave up their powers to save the world.
The one who didn’t, PenUltimate, chose to stay home with his wife instead of joining the rest of the superheroes on the day they gave up their powers to Ultimate so that he could defeat The Blue. Ultimate is killed entering The Blue and all the superheroes are bitter, both because they have to live like normal people, and because PenUltimate, the sidekick of Ultimate, was too much of a coward to help them. The story that follows centers on Pen’s struggle to avoid the responsibility of his powers when a new terror starts attacking their city.
The most realtable and engaging aspect of A Once Crowded Sky is Pen’s struggle between his promise to his wife and his promise to his dream job. Pen starts the story rushing between saving the day and coming back home to apologize for broken promises to be with his wife. As a reader, we too want him to save the day for the innocents, but we also want a happy ending for him and his wife. This is emphasized by a powerfully emotional section in the middle of the book in which Pen is forced to choose one or the other, and which springboards the reader toward the end.
Another strong component of the book is the mystery that is The Blue, a source of light that kills everything it touches, including Ultimate, the ultimate superhero. I won’t spoil the fun for you, but the key, as well as the moral of the story, is found somewhere within the metaphor of The Game. In Tom’s world, superheroes are required to play by the rules of The Game, which makes the story feel like comic book characters came to life, spandex and all, both to fight crime and make their wives pancakes. This added an unexpected depth of philosophy and realism in a book about superheroes.
Here’s a sample, as spoken by Soldier to Pen:
“This world’s cruel, this game, and it ain’t got an inch for children… It’s just doing what you can, or else someone else dies. Those are the rules. That’s the choice. Showing up. That’s the game. That’s all it is. That and it never ends.”
Also notable is the author’s immersive style of storyshowing, which is a bad pun meant to say he shows you the story instead of telling it to you, which puts you into the characters’ heads to experience the action as they do. Here’s an example:
The fire blasts yellow-blue and then crackles into waves of orange that rumble through the room. The tips of his hair singe, and Pen drops to the floor, allows the worst of the heat to rest over his head, makes sure to keep his hands locked down on the table. The flames hook into his skin and wrench his flesh upward; but his grip’s sure, and he holds.
The wooden ceiling brace above his head’ll fall, but he can’t move for another fourteen seconds, not until the smacker’s across. He stiffens his body in anticipation of the impact, and when the blow comes—the beam snapping on his back, swaddling foot-long slivers around his skin, slopping sand inside his nostrils and eyelids—Pen retains his stance, his hands slipping, but still pushing, holding.
There is room for improvement, but the prose is unique and very effective. Part of the downfall was in the few parts where the immersive style included flashbacks and thoughts that were lost me. Sometimes the style really added to my interest in the characters, and sometimes it slowed the pace or just plain confused me. The Blue is a riddle, and until it starts making sense, it’s easy to put the book down after one of his scenes breaks. Page 121 is where I decided I was going to finish, so it may take a little perseverance to get to the point where you have to finish as well. I think it’s worth it. I liked the innovative way he made me feel like I was reading a comic, yet with prose that put me deep enough into the character’s heads that I left with a moving experience.