These books, by Seanan McGuire, are another exploration of superheroes and superhero tropes in a modern, real (for varying definitions of real) world. Like many books in this genre (D-List Supervillain to a lesser extent; Soon I Will Be Invincible to a much greater extent), it is a deconstruction of superheroes and a tongue-in-cheek look at what a world would actually be like if superhumans were common and people fell through rips in the space-time continuum on a regular enough basis for there to be scientists who spend their entire careers studying such things.
As I mentioned, Invincible is a much more serious take on this, despite it's amusing title. It's a pretty dark world, with pretty dark characters, and pretty much nobody gets a happily ever after. Ever. It is perhaps the most realistic, but it's not a playful romp.
Meanwhile, I've already discussed D-List elsewhere. And while it somewhat deconstructs things, they're more concerned with telling a fun tale. It's less deep analysis and more tweaking the nose in a loving manner. More, "hey, owning a super suit's expensive! Who knew?" as opposed to, "hey, the suit's super-strong but I'm still normal, so lifting that car shredded my rotator cuff before crushing me! Who knew?"
Velveteen sits, quite comfortably, between those two extremes. It is, without question, far more cynical than D-List, but not nearly as... well... depressing as Invincible (I should note that I quite enjoyed Invincible, but it's pretty serious). Honestly, in some ways, this is the kind of superhero book I would expect from Max Barry. I'll explain.
This world starts with the standard conceit that superheroes are real. It even gets into the first three superheroes and how they eventually incorporated (and one character from an alternate timeline is from a very different world simply because superheroism manifested earlier). It then starts from this premise and follows the trail demanded by a simple question: well, how would this play out in the modern world?
In many ways, Super Patriots Inc. operates somewhat like Ma Bell did. While it may not have started intending a total monopoly on superheroes (something like 95% of North America's superheroes are members), that's where they ended up. Well, okay, so how would that play out in modern America? Well, Marketing and Legal would be very, very important.
Legal would be important because of lawsuits. If Hero Man and Evil Joe are fighting on your street and your car gets trashed, what do you do? Can you sue Hero Man? Can you sue Super Patriots? Well, no. Because they're a super powerful corporation with a cracker-jack legal team. Likewise, Legal would be heavily involved in lobbying for various laws and regulations and making sure superheroes are properly licensed for everyone's protection (for a vague parallel, look at Uber and city taxi services).
Marketing, on the other hand, is arguably even more important. Just look at comic books. Spiderman has to make ends meet by working a day job; not everyone can be a billionaire like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne. Take that and blend it with America's celebrity obsession, and you see the titanic power that Marketing would wield. Action figures, Halloween costumes, lunch boxes, t-shirts, so on and so forth. And how would a modern America deal with the fact that most superheroes manifest as children when the only game in town is a massive corporation? Why, a reality TV contents ala American Idol, of course. And, just like American Idol, it's all rigged.
We are introduced to this world via the title character, Velma "Velveteen" Martinez. One time child hero who quit the game when she was 18. And, by and large, she just wants to be left alone. But, of course, that can't be allowed to happen. You don't turn your back on Super Patriots Inc.
The pacing on these two books (especially the first) is odd. It felt oddly disjointed, like a collection of loosely connected short stories than an actual novel. Turns out there's a reason for that: it's a collection of loosely connected short stories and not a novel. From Seanan McGuire's website:
The Velveteen stories began in 2008 as an open-ended series about a superhero universe where cosmic powers not only came with great responsibility, they came with great legislation, merchandising, and focus group oversight. Many young heroes were effectively "adopted" by a corporate entity known as The Super Patriots, Inc., which promised to teach them how to best control their amazing gifts.So, there you go.
That said... I love these two books. In fact, after I'm done writing this, I'm going to stop reading Cibola Burn and reread these. To be honest, I'm a little tired of superhero deconstruction, as that seems to be all anyone writing about superheroes is able to do, but I genuinely care about these characters. I care about Velma and The Princess and Jackie Frost and Victory Anna and Sparkle Bright. I care about the odd love hexagon: A and B love each other but can't say it to each other while A and C also love each other but not to the extent A and B do; D desperately loves A although A doesn't swing that way, and E is deeply in love with D, or rather, an alternate version of D that no longer exists. Only in a superhero story.
And it's that love of these fleshed out characters is what makes the ending couple chapters/stories in Multiverse so utterly heart-rending. It earns its pathos. When a character dies, you care. You mourn them. When a relationship dissolves, you ache for them. When a relationship succeeds despite all odds, you want to cheer.
Perhaps it's the style. In many ways, it almost comes across as a documentary blended with a traditional third person narrative. Or maybe like an episode of Burn Notice if the voice over explanations were half the episode and were delivered by Matt Nix instead of Michael Weston. So, we'll have a scene where Vel is off doing some thing or another, say eating cheese puffs, and then the action will pause for anywhere from a paragraph to 80% of the actual story as McGuire goes off on a tangent about the scene at hand. In this case, talking about Marketing's strict dietary requires (briefly, Carbs Are Bad), and taking that off to a longer discussion of superhero costumes before potentially branching to some lawsuit or movement or what-have-you before getting back to Vel. You'd think this would be aggravating, but it's fascinating. It's obvious these are authorial filibusters about various things stuck in her craw (the evils of marketing, sexism, the evils of marketing, double standards, the evils of marketing, difficulty living up to expectations, the evils of marketing, the evils of marketing, and, oh yes, the evils of marketing; hence my Max Barry comment above), it also shows that she's spent a lot of time thinking about this world. It all hangs together. It may not be even remotely realistic, but that doesn't matter. It has verisimilitude, which is far more important.
In a way, it's a pity that she's told her story, because I would deeply enjoy further tales, even ones inserted earlier into the timeline. If nothing else, that tells me she did a great job. Always leave them wanting more, indeed.
The first book is available pretty much everywhere (at least electronically), the second is pretty much just available via the publisher.