I thought I knew where this story was going, based on a fairly extensive knowledge of genre tropes, but I didn’t, and that delighted me. It wasn’t so far afield that I could characterise it as shocking or revolutionary, but the horror—as it were—didn’t come from any kind of malevolence on the part of the mystery, but from within an otherwise gentle and sympathetic protagonist. The horror is knowing what is inside of us and what we are capable of, and in knowing that others know it. I confess to being a little bit unsatisfied by the ending, but then that lingering sense of unfinishedness and friction is part of what makes the rest of the story effective.
At its foundation, this is a story with a lot of really interesting ideas—particularly those to do with the symbiotic roles of superhero and supervillain, and the sometimes fine line between them—but in execution it’s kind of a big ol’ mess. The novel that’s described in the summary only lasts for maybe the first quarter of the book then it veers off into several other directions, often without much sense or transition, and most of the characters are simultaneously unlikeable and lacking any depth; the members of the Seven Wonders themselves could almost be interchangeable but for their powers.
There are also some delightful bits, like the enumeration of the remaining superheroes on the planet, but they also don’t fit (especially considering what happens following their introduction). It wants to be fun, thoughtful and dark, and doesn’t entirely succeed at any of them.
I was intrigued by this piece right from the title, which hints at a story that questions gender roles and privilege. What I got was more an upending of pronouns than roles or identities, which made me question a bit what it was all meant to amount to. The vivid yet fable-like narrative did keep a good pace and drew me through the story, and the worldbuilding felt quite well realised, but it chopped in places and didn’t quite draw me in the way I hoped.
Reminiscent of Johnny Got His Gun, an unwilling soldier is pushed beyond the reasonable limits of endurance into a state where free will and communication are taken from them, and they struggle to retain what personal power they can. It’s dark and cautionary, exploring the lengths to which a person can be exploited in the name of protecting their “people”.
What struck me most was the juxtaposition of a neuroatypical protagonist and the depersonalisation of the soldier. It is a reality for some neuroatypical people that neurotypical people assume they don’t “feel” things; that idea is taken to escalating extremes here. At one point early on the protagonist refers to themself as “a smoothly functioning component in the machine”, a prescient statement in horrific ways. Read as a metaphorical exploration of what it feels like to be depersonalised, it becomes even more powerful to me than as an anti-war statement.