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SF/F Review - Starter Villain
Synopsis: A failing everyman inherits a black ops R&D company from an estranged uncle, fumbles around a lot while failing businessmen try to scam him and assassinate him for a few weeks, then retires.
Book Review: Alright, I got a few bones to pick here. Mainly in expectations. First, the cover is deceptive. I was expecting an actual EVIL CAT. Our protagonist is a 30-year-old loser named Charlie. I would have much preferred to read about an evil cat, or a talking cat, or even just a super-smart cat. If you’re going to put a cat in a business suit and have the text under it read “Starter Villain” I am gonna say it’s fair to blame you for this failure to deliver on promises!
Secondly, I was told this would be about villains. Or at least a villain. Charlie is not a villain. He’s an incompetent everyman, who has a pure soul. We see he has a pure soul because he’s a teacher (bleh) and he loves cats (is there anything lazier?) and he put himself in danger to stop someone from stabbing his uncle’s corpse (good is dumb, you see!) and also put himself in danger to stop an assassination attempt on the old man next to him that’s been threatening to kill him (he can’t help himself, he’s just so good!). I could maybe forgive this, but the other “villains” in the story? They aren’t villains either!!
His uncle (dead at the start of the novel) is a successful government contractor and business owner. He does tech research, espionage, and grey-ops security work for the USA. You may not be a fan of our government IRL, but unless you’re working to overthrow it right now I assume you don’t consider it villainously evil. He does this work better and/or less expensively than the US govt could, meaning he saves lives and/or tax dollars. He reinvests his profits into tech research, start ups, and small businesses!! He’s a friggin paragon of everything right with our system.
The antagonists in the novel are legit awful. They are wastrel sons, squandering the wealth their parents created and destroying valuable businesses. Absolute incompetent idiots. They try to borrow and steal their way out of insolvency, then start threatening and blackmailing Charlie, and eventually start assassinating folks. This is legit bad. But this isn’t villainous. It’s just incompetent assholery.
I am really irked by this because I have a thing for villains. I love villains. A villain isn’t just a bad person. I villain is an archetype for something great, something powerful and visionary, but tragically misguided or overly-focused. Over ten years ago I created this pic to celebrate a list I found. Two years after that I ran a panel at Denver ComicCon on super-villains. In my own works, I mostly write about the villains (which I realize will mean I’ll always have a limited audience).
So when I’m promised villains and I primarily get a heroic capitalist, incompetent idiot wastrel sons, and a common loser, I feel a bit stiffed! The two candidates for actual villains - Till and Dobrev - didn’t get much screen time. :( Not surprisingly, they were the most interesting characters in the book. Everyone else was boring.
As best as I can figure, maybe “villain” was just being used as a synonym for “billionaire,” since they were all (nominally) billionaires, and Charlie became a “starter villain” when he inherited his billions. In which case in addition to being disappointing this novel is morally corrupt in its conception, and lazy.
That’s the other thing about Starter Villain. It’s aggressively mediocre. It’s kinda boring and obviously lazy. Everything is very cliche and uninspired. It’s still fine, because Scalzi is a damned good writer, and even when he’s phoning it in he doesn’t produce crap. But it feels like he’s literally just shoveling out good-enough product that he doesn’t care to actually put effort into because he knows it’ll sell anyway and he wants another paycheck.
He writes in the afterward that he caught COVID mid-book, couldn’t work on it for a few months, and had to rush something to his publisher. It shows. This is another reason the publishing industry is crap. You rush an artist and you get this sort of junk.
(Personally, I think inability to write often stems from deep desire to not write what you think you “““should””” be writing. Likely at some point Scalzi realized this whole thing wasn’t working, writing to pander to the Guillotine Mob was awful, and he should just scrap the whole book and start on something else. But his social circles and his contract wouldn’t let him do the right thing, and ultimately he had enough professional integrity to force out something that his publisher could print as “good enough.” Again, this sucks. :( )
Also I think I’m just kinda getting tired of his style of humor. As I’ve been moving away from socially toxic spaces I’ve found it easier to embrace joyful celebration of great things, rather than smarmy sniping at hated things. I appreciate that it’s necessary to retain one’s sanity when one is trapped in a toxic place, and it helped me during my years there, but partaking in it now Feels Bad.
I think. Maybe I’m just rationalizing excuses for what comes down to differences in taste. I’d much rather read something joyous like Gideon The Ninth or Chuck Tingle nowadays.
Anyway, it was neat that we had a capitalist hero, the talking cats were really cool, and Dobrev was an absolute delight whenever he was on screen. But on balance the book rubbed me the wrong way from many directions. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: It was alright. A decent turn out, because it was a light, fast read. And I was an outlier, everyone else at least enjoyed it on the level of “hey that was a fun diversion.” There was some joking and talking about the fun parts, and some grousing about a few of the dumb bits, but no one hated it. But the Book Club Review is heavily weighted towards books that start interesting, thought-provoking conversations, and this one didn’t do that. We didn’t have a whole lot to discuss and to spark more follow-up conversation. Not bad by any stretch, but also Not Recommended.