Rafael Chandler’s The Astounding Antagonists is a superhero-and-supervillain page-turner and, so far, the best novel I have read in the genre. It’s not easy to make a genre primarily associated with visual media come alive solely with words, but Chandler does a beautiful job.
The first thing that hooked me, from the very first few paragraphs, is the strong characterization, with interesting, likeable, believable, and diverse characters. Then we get to see a web of relationships established between them, which will drive the plot throughout the book. It was lovely to see lots of different types of protagonists with different ways of seeing the world.
The rhythm and writing style are excellent, making it hard to put down the book (or rather the e-reader). I kept wanting to find out what happened next. I would be delighted if this was turned into a graphic novel or, let’s dream big, a movie. But I have to admit that losing direct access to the writing style in the process would be a down side.
I also loved the way Chandler addresses his readers as smart, well-read, and engaged. He drops references to the classics of superhero comics and of Greek literature with equal aplomb and makes apologies for neither, counting on the reader to follow along. He plays on stereotypes without ever becoming heavy-handed, just to keep you from making unwarranted assumptions while you read. As a result, I was far more frequently surprised by the plot twists than I had been by, say, Austin Grossman’s otherwise enjoyable Soon I Will Be Invincible.
If I must pick weaknesses in the writing, I’d have to say that a few more likeable superheroes would have made the tension more powerful. The other potential flaw is inherent to the genre: it’s very difficult to describe the kind of wide-spread, free-for-all battles that are its trademark. From time to time I had a little trouble visualizing this type of scene. However, those were “in passing” remarks, while the strengths of the book were ever-present.
If you loved Watchmen or Astro City, I expect you will greatly enjoy this book. In fact, I liked it so much that I immediately started reading Chandler’s other novel, Hexcommunicated.
Further reading: If you like novels based on superheroes and supervillains, check out this list on Goodreads.