Playing for Keeps by Mur Lafferty
I love superheroes. Once, this was a statement synonymous with "I love comic
books," since comics were the exclusive home of the muscular men with capes and
masks. (Okay, pro-wrestling also had these, but we all knew they were fakes,
while the comics were reporting on the real thing.) In recent years, however,
superheroes have been slipping free of comics. Superheroes dominate summer
movies. Cartoon Network is chockfull of superhero action, and they've invaded
mainstream TV with shows like Heroes and Smallville. Superheroes now thrive in
almost every medium save one: novels. Sure, there have always been a few
superhero novels available based on popular characters like the X-men or Batman,
but these books are licensed properties that must follow the hard and fast rule of
always returning the core characters to the status quo. As art, most of them come
Fortunately, recent years have finally seen the publication of stand-alone superhero
novels that aren't spin-offs or adaptations of anything. I don't know that these are
numerous enough to constitute an official superhero genre. I can still count all the
original superhero novels on my fingers. But soon, it looks like I'll have to be
using my toes, because the pace of the appearance of superhero books is picking
The latest entry is Mur Lafferty's Playing for Keeps. Lafferty's take on
superheroes in an eclectic mix of Watchmen, the Legion of Substitute Heroes, and
Cheers. It's set in Seventh City, a town where superhero battles are a more or less
daily occurrence. The superheroes are legally sanctioned defenders of the city,
licensed and trained by the Academy, which is located in a giant skyscraper that
seems to house more than its fair share of mad scientists. Decades ago, there was a
government sponsored drug trial that caused a lot of mutations and gave people
superpowers. Their children were also born with superpowers, and, in fact, the
"second wavers" tended to have even better powers than their parents. Then came
the third wave, whose powers were mostly impractical or downright useless. Many
of the third wavers gather at Keepsie's Bar and gripe about what jerks the second-wavers are.
Keepsie Branson is part of the third wave. Her superpower isn't useless, it's just
difficult to trigger. If you try to take away something that belongs to her, a
powerful force field will freeze your hand in place, trapping you. It's not a
horrible superpower, but it's not enough to earn her a slot at the Academy. For the
most part, she has a successful life. She's got a wide circle of friends, mostly other
third-wavers with powers even less useful than hers. Still, there's a lingering
thread of resentment toward the officially approved superheroes that leaves her
vulnerable to the manipulations of two supervillians, Doodad and Clever Jack.
Clever Jack is an especially charming villain whose superpower is incredible luck.
The authorities can never hold him because his super-luck always causes some odd
string of events that ensures he'll safely escape.
Clever Jack convinces Keepsie and her friends that the Academy is more of a
threat to the world than the so-called villains are. He paints a picture of the heroes
as superpowered Nazis and appeals to Keepsie to help him free one of his buddies
that they are holding captive. She turns him down. But when the heroes learn that
Clever Jack contacted her and her friends, they arrest them and subject her friend
Peter to torture in an attempt to find out Clever Jack's plan.
Of course, the ill-treatment of Keepsie's friends was Clever Jack's plan all along.
He shows up to help them escape, and in the midst of the escape they help him free
his former girlfriend, Light of Mornings, the most powerful supervillian ever born,
a girl with the power of a living sun capable of turning Seventh City into a
smoking crater, which she proceeds to do.
While the good guys are authoritarian thugs, the villains turn out to be even worse.
Keepsie and her third wave buddies wind up in the middle of an all out war
between the supervillians and superheroes. There are legions of mind-controlled
homeless people, a demon army, and more robots than you can shake a stick at, all
piling onto the biggest superpowered slugfest the world has ever seen.
The real joy of the book is watching the third wavers figure out how to use their
"useless" powers to stay on top of all the madness. Peter, who is secretly in love
with Keepsie, can sniff people and read their memories in their body odors. He
discovers he's able to figure out the location of all the various players by taking
something they've worn and smelling it, earning himself the codename
Bloodhound. Keepsie's waitress Michelle has a superpower that allows her to hold
anything on a tray without dropping it. She's been hired because she never spills a
drink. During all the fighting, though, she discovers her power also gives her
super-strength. She can pick up a tank as long as she's balancing it on a bar tray.
There's a character named Jason with a power so lame he's embarrassed to talk
about it: He has total command of elevators. Any elevator he's in always goes to
the floor he wants without stopping. Of course, he gets his moment of glory as
There are a few places where the book stretches the silliness past the point of
plausibility. It's tough to figure out how some experimental drug test back in
World War II is still producing such weird mutations two generations later.
Keepsie's powers grow after she takes a new dose of the super-drug and some of
the stuff she can do with it later in the book seems extremely convenient for the
plot. Finally, the villains' plans are somewhat fuzzy after they free Light of
Mornings. If they have some larger goal other than killing people and breaking
stuff, I never quite grasped it.
All in all, Playing for Keeps is a fun read that mixes humor, action, drama and
romance in just the right balance. If there is one day a superhero novel section in
book stores, it will be because clever books like this helped give birth to the genre.
Read more by James Maxey