Zeroes

Zeroes was written by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti and first published in 2015. It is a science fiction story follows a group of teenagers who all possess supernatural abilities, thought don’t have much of a grasp on how to use them. The novel forms the first part of a trilogy and is followed by Swarm (2016) and Nexus (2017).

Ethan Cooper – otherwise known as Scam – has a voice inside him that has the ability to give him whatever he wants. Unfortunately, the voice is not one to consider the long-term consequences of its actions. When Ethan wants a lift home, the voice is more than happy to assist him. However, this soon results in the theft of a drug dealer’s money and his inadvertent involvement in a bank heist that goes horribly wrong.

When he is taken into police custody, Ethan quickly learns that the whole series of events has been caught on film. Now, the police want to an explanation as to how he came to know personal details of a bank robber and not even the voice can get him out of this one. Luckily for Ethan, there are others who can. He once belonged to a group of “Zeroes” – teenagers with powers. Trouble is, he burned his bridges with them a year previously when he allowed the voice to reveal their darkest secrets.

Fortunately, Nate Saldana – or Bellwether – has been looking for a reason to get his team back together. Utilising their skills, the teens manage to rescue Ethan but find themselves in more trouble than they could ever have imagined. It’s not just drug dealers and gangsters that are now out to get Scam. He is also being hunted by the daughter of one of the bank robbers – a girl who has a powerful gift of her own…

Before I begin, I think I should probably give my customary words of warning. Although Zeroes is a very easy read, it does contain a few themes that may be inappropriate for younger readers. While it is by no means as graphic as some of the other novels I have reviewed, it does include scenes of drug use, gun violence and sexual language. You have been warned.

Zeroes is an ambitious novel that puts an interesting twist on the superhero genre. Unlike a typical story of this type, the protagonists do not have especially grandiose powers. They cannot fly, use super-strength or blow things up with a thought. Almost every ability in Zeroes feels like a natural extension to a person’s regular senses, yet they come with some massive weaknesses. From Chizara (“Crash”) whose technology-frying powers make her hyper-sensitive to wi-fi signals, to blind Flicker who can see through anyone’s eyes except for her own The fact that the powers are so low-key really helped to add a sense of realism to the tale.

While I did like this concept, my only small issue was that I did not feel that some of the abilities were very clearly defined. While the novel spent a lot of time detailing how Flicker, Scam and Thibault (“Anonymous”) used their abilities, I was less clear on how Bellwether and Kelsie (“Mob”) operated. Their powers were probably the least dramatic of the group and the scenes in which they were used were a little hard to follow, making it difficult to grasp what their strengths and weaknesses were.

My biggest problem with Zeroes was the sheer number of narrators. While the novel was entirely told in third person, the focus was split between the six protagonists – Scam, Bellwether, Crash, Flicker, Anonymous and Mob. Personally, I felt that this was just too many. The chapters were all rather short which meant that the narrative frequently jumped around, and their was not enough to differentiate the voices in order to make the characters easy to distinguish from each other. The result was that this just bogged down the story – particularly in the middle section when the plot naturally slowed down. While the book did have a few exciting scenes, these were mostly clustered around the start and end of the tale, leaving my attention to drift a little in the space in between.

I also have some mixed feelings towards the ending of Zeroes. As with the rest of the novel, the final mission is very downplayed. Rather than a face-off against the villains, it’s more of a rescue mission in which all of the Zeroes were forced to finally use their powers together. While it was great to see how well they work together as a team, it would have been nice to see them do something more together than essentially run away. Yet the climax did nicely wrap up this stage of the story, leaving just enough open to feed into the sequel.

Yet it is in terms of character that Zeroes really does shine. The protagonists form a nicely diverse group as they are composed from a variety of different ethnicities, as well as different social backgrounds. This ranges from the fabulously wealthy Bellwether to Mob – a teenager with a criminal father and a broken home. It’s made quite clear in the novel that the only thing connecting most of these characters are their powers, which leads to some understandable tension between them.

The small relationships that form between the characters were, for me, the heart of the story. I very much enjoyed the scenes in which we see Crash testing her control, and the way that the relationship between Flicker and Anonymous slowly blossoms. Even Scam, who was horribly annoying to begin with, became a more likeable character as he started to open up and reveal his origin story to Mob. This was the thing about the story that I truly loved and I look forward to seeing how the authors will develop them further in the next book.

Sadly, the villains in Zeroes were not quite so well rounded. Although a couple of them have names, there was nothing that made the bad guys really stand out. All of them were just mindless gangsters, thugs and lesser criminals, and none possessed any kind of superpower. While these enemies were realistic foes for Californian teenagers to face, they were ultimately a bit forgettable in the greater scheme of things and did not seem overly threatening in themselves.

I think that’s about all that I have to say. All in all, Zeroes was a bit of mixed bag. While the narrative and structure had some problems, I did really like the core concept and way that the characters slowly developed as the novel progressed. It’s certainly a novel that I would recommend to fans of superhero stories.

Zeroes can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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