Every now and then someone sends me a non-comics book, usually an all ages one, probably because I've been reviewing more comics aimed at a younger audience in recent years. Archvillian by Barry Lyga is one such book. Possibly, Scholastic sent it to ComixTalk because of it's superhero-inspired theme (okay make that likely because of…). Lyga has been writing superhero-inspired young adult novels since 2006, but to be honest I'd never heard of him before nor read anything else by him. Which isn't surprising as my kids (aka the X-girls) tend more towards fantasy and mystery more than science fiction so far and I don't think they've ever gone for a superhero story on their own initiative.
Still I gave this one a shot — it's the story of Kyle Camden who starts off the book as the smartest and most popular kid in school, but also a kid who has already decided that he has no time to suffer for fools and that by and large the rules don't apply to him. He is loved and feared because of a trail of legendary pranks he's committed (although the book's recounting of the "pranks" in his past reveals that they are actually kind of pedestrian). It's a book told entirely from Kyle's point of view too so there's not much of a reality check on what he tells us of other characters in the story or about himself.
Quickly the story introduces a "plasma storm" in which Kyle is the only person from earth caught in. It gives Kyle superpowers and also sends a super-powered alien to Earth, an alien who seems pretty human except for having even more superpowers. This alien is dubbed with the title "Mighty Mike" by the world and conveniently for the story he is also Kyle's age and gets sent to Kyle's school. Kyle knows Mike is an alien — the rest of the world doesn't — and Kyle spends the rest of the book trying to "out" Mike to the rest of the world.
Kyle thinks of himself as meaning well but the combination of his arrogant, know-it-all attitude, distrust of everyone from his parents to school to his best friend Mairi leads to him taking actions that lead the rest of the world to believe he is some sort of new supervillian. It is a bit unusual to read a book aimed at all ages with such an anti-hero as it's main protagonist. I think Lyga wants Kyle to be perceived as well-meaning and (maybe) as basically good but Kyle generally seems like a jerk throughout the book (Looks like Karin's Book Nook agreed with my take on that). Of course, some kids are like this, but usually in all ages books protagonists are characters with some redeeming qualities and some growth over the course of the story. I just really didn't see that here. I also didn't think the characters of Mike and Mairi, the girl who is Kyle's best friend and the only one trying to befriend Mike, were all that well developed either. Granted it's not their story but I think it would have been more interesting to have spent more time understanding them and giving them a bit more characterization.
In that sense, I thought this quote from the author in an interview over at The Literary Asylum was interesting:
The publisher actually approached me with the basic idea. They said, "Wouldn't it be cool to do a story about a kid who's a villain, not a hero?" And I mulled it over for a long, long time — years, actually! I kept saying that I wasn't interested, that I wasn't the right guy to do the book, and they kept asking. And then one day, it occurred to me: If the kid was really, REALLY smart and sarcastic and sort of self-absorbed… It would work. He could be a villain, but he would never in a million years think of himself as a villain. Once that clicked for me, I realized how I could approach this idea, and the rest is (or will be) history.
I think he did that about as well as one can with that assignment in a book that runs about 150 pages. The problem is that heroes and villains as they exist in the superhero genre don't translate all that well to real life — particularly the villain side of things. In some ways, the fact that Lyga tries to fit the idea of a super villain into a more "realistic" setting is just so much proverbial round peg into square hole hammering.
I'm trying not to be completely negative — it's obvious that Lyga is a decent wordsmith and the plot moves very quickly (this book has some of the shortest chapters I've seen since a Dan Brown novel). In some ways Kyle is probably a character that readers will be able to relate to at times – getting in trouble, not trusting adults, feeling like no realizes how smart you really are – but ultimately the choices Kyle makes range between bad and dumb. Some bits of the book are genuinely funny too.
And not everyone agrees with me — the Book Reviews and More Blog liked it, they called it "an addictive story and well-written" and said:
You find yourself torn between cheering for Kyle and hoping he gets caught. Children will love reading this book and I am sure it will spark great debate about doing the right things for the wrong reasons, and having a good goal but achieving it in a wrong way and so on.
The publisher provided a free copy to Comix Talk for review purposes.