It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but I have a few backlogged. For those new to my blog, “Peer Reviews” are reviews of products that friends of mine have worked on, because I am lucky to have a lot of talented friends. As usual for my Peer Reviews, full disclosure: I have shared drinks and emails with Matt Forbeck in the past. I purchased these books with my own money.
Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World (so called to avoid confusion with any other properties entitled “Brave New World” and not at all due to Matt’s ego) is a trilogy of superhero novels based on a roleplaying game Matt developed back in the late 90s. I actually have no prior experience with the game, so I came into them cold. While the first novel stands relatively well on its own, the story really takes place across all three books, so I’ll be reviewing them as a unit (collectively “the story”).
The books are set in 1999, in a dystopian world where the fight between super-powered humans led to the destruction of Chicago and the imposition of a police state. Each chapter is a first-person perspective for a different character, but the most common character is Patriot, a formerly-loved American hero who is now fighting against the ongoing tyranny of President Kennedy (yes, THAT President Kennedy). From there we follow the struggles of a variety of characters as the political and personal ambitions of a variety of character conflict over the course of three novels.
I admit I have a soft spot for morally-gray superhero stories, and this one really delivers that. No character is completely good or completely bad, and even a couple of the “villains” in the story get their own spotlight chapters. Some of the weirder parts of the setting (such as why President Kennedy is still around after 1963) are explained, but Matt doesn’t succumb to artificially accelerating the timeline — as weird as it seems, 1999 was fourteen years ago, and small things like the lack of cellphones and the relatively crude nature of the Internet are reflected in the story.
On the other hand, I admit I struggled with the shifting first-person format. To cite a common example, George R. R. Martin had a similar format in his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, but those chapters are all third-person (even if they are third-person close). It’s a subtle difference, but a noteworthy one — if I skimmed over the name at the start of the chapter, I sometimes had to struggle to remember whose head I was in at the moment. Third-person narration is handy because it repeats the character’s name, so you don’t lose track. However, Matt is clever enough to seed other cues around and repeat important information if it’s been a few chapters, so it wasn’t as much of a problem as it could have been. However, I could envision some readers being turned off by the format.
Also, at times I felt the story could have explored some of the darkness of the setting a little more, but I think this is more an indication of Matt’s style than a particular failing — Matt generally writes more upbeat stuff than I do. That doesn’t mean that this story doesn’t explore some dark corners of the human psyche, but it does mean that it is still, at heart, a superhero story. It reminded me a lot of the Civil War arc that Marvel did — the characters have a lot of conflict, but things do resolve to a relative status quo at the end.
But these are very minor quibbles. The novels are short and well-paced, and I tore through them all quickly. They are well worth it. You can get them over at Matt’s website, or via DriveThruFiction.com.