Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti

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ZeroesZeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan and Deborah Biancotti
Simon Pulse, due out in September 2015.

All Ethan wanted was a ride home. But instead, he gets himself into a tangle of trouble including drug dealers, bank robbers and Russian gangsters. But Ethan is no ordinary teenager – he and other teens have special powers. Some might call them superpowers.

Unlike the superheroes we’re used to, these otherwise ordinary teens’ powers are somewhat more amorphous, and none of them involve enhanced physical powers or prowess – there’s no flying, punching or wielding magical hammers. Mostly, their powers seem to relate to controlling and feeding off connections, human or otherwise. There is no explanation for why these teens have these powers beyond some speculation that they were all born in 2000 – a touch of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children?

Initially, there’s a group of five: “The Zeroes, they’d called themselves as a joke. Like heroes, but not.” Riley aka Flicker, a blind girl, can see through others’ eyes; Thibault aka Anon can make people ignore him; Ethan aka Scam can talk himself into anything he wants, Nate aka Bellwether (and sometimes snarkily referred to as Glorious Leader) can focus crowds onto himself and control them; Chizara aka Crash can crash electronic devices and connections. And then Ethan meets up with Kelsie: her powers are linked to the emotions of a crowd.

Initially I found the novel hard work and slow going – there are a lot of characters to assimilate, and their powers are a little tricky to understand. But by about a third of the way through, once the Zeroes are established and the plot becomes more focused, it takes off, and becomes a compelling action thriller with a stunning climax, both satisfying and emotional.

Zeroes is a contemporary superhero book with a realistic setting, unlike the somewhat similarly themed Blackout series. There is a diverse cast – Riley is blind, Chizara is Nigerian American, Nate is Hispanic and they have a range of family and economic backgrounds – and the authors take time to establish them as characters beyond their powers, though at risk, I suspect, of losing readers looking for something more concrete and fast-paced. It also explores the dark side of their powers, even as the teens learn to amplify and control them “no power came without a cost.”

Clearly there are going to be sequels. After all, it would be a shame not to build on the effort of creating and bonding the 6 characters, and establishing the fictional West Coast Cambria City. And to that end, there are some loose ends: Nate’s Ultimate Goal and the role of this “superpowered posse” is unclear, even, it appears, to himself; and there are some tentative romantic coupling ups within the group too.

This is a cinematic novel with layers of ambiguity and complexity and is bound to attract a wide teen readership.

Thanks to Simon Pulse and Edelweiss for the eARC.

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