In Hero Years...I'm Dead by Michael A. Stackpole
Summary from Goodreads:
Twenty years ago someone stole him away from Capital City. Having been released from captivity he returns to find everything changed. The great heroes of his day, men who could move planets or tear apart criminal syndicates, have all retired. A new breed of hero has sprung up to deal with a perplexingly new brand of villain. It's a world that makes no sense, and a world which, if he persists in playing the hero, will surely see him dead.
In Hero Years... I'm Dead mixes action, dark humor, satire and strong characters into a thrilling page-turner. It's superheroes facing challenges both in costume and out, battling a cunning enemy bent on destroying all they have worked so hard to preserve.
It turns out, I was right about Michael Stackpole. His reputation does precedes him; being a game designer and author of Star Wars and Battle Tech novels and a future World of Warcraft novel; he does understand fantasy and sci-fi. The world Stackpole created here is just so meticulously detailed and technical that it comes out very realistic. There wasn't a single doubt in my mind that such a world could exist.
Capital City is this big modern futuristic city where "heroing" (crime fighting) is viewed as a means of livelihood. Heroes are reality tv stars or maybe even sports teams that citizens can bet on. Earnings are based on ratings. Technology helps the masses keep tabs on their bets/pets, through devices like utiliPods (hand held device) or Murdochs (tv screens). The whole operating system was so well put that if heroes were to really exist, this is exactly how I imagined the society would turn out to be. But just like any operating system, there is bound to be some mud and dirt, deceit and treachery. It's entertainment and politics bundled up in one.
The plot is unpredictable and layered. It's like one of those really good detective/crime shows, you get shown puzzle pieces, clues, but you can never really put two and two together until the very end where everything comes together as one big revelation. The story starts with the return from exile of an old beat up superhero; to his home, Capital City; in the hopes of finding out who or what was behind his said exile. But he returns to a Capital City changed. It has a different look and operates on a different system that what he was used to. He also encounters old friends and family that makes him lean more towards retiring, of giving up his initial quest for answers because it will just eventually lead him into the whole political hero-villain mess. Everything seems to be going well up until a series of seemingly planned but disorganized crime capers begin to happen in Capital City. Plus the appearance of an old colleague (hero) and an old familiar villain. Thus the beginning of the struggle between retiring and sticking his business in heroing yet again.
The characters are real and sympathetic. Superheroes have the tendency to seem unreal, unreachable, artificial, just like the skin tight latex they wear. But oddly enough, the characters here you can identify with, which I think, thanks largely in part to how Stackpole creates a very detailed and clever introspection, done by the main protagonist (which I shall not name because it just seems spoilery to me). He tackles issues like growing old, the fear of being set aside, of finding yet again another identity because heroing is all that you know and are.
While some of the characters closely resemble old time comic book classics like Batman, Superman, and Cat Woman, it wasn't done in bad taste. In fact, if anything else it's an excellently done parody. You see the resemblance but the author added new layers to them that make them appear separate from the characters in which they were based upon. So ultimately, they are just like whole new characters in themselves.
I also love the dialogue which feels a bit like a social commentary in certain parts about crime and technology and politics and the society. The dialogue may also appear a bit philosophical. I love that it provided a much in depth discussion about nature vs nurture; about man being inherently good vs inherently evil, There were also added wit and humor here and there which I greatly appreciated.
This superhero fiction is less of the glam and glitz of cape crusading but speaks more about the darker and grittier side of it. I loved this book so much that I would probably read (and hope for) any prequel, sequel, or spin-off coming out if this. If you're looking for an excellent superhero fiction, I highly recommend this one. It's witty, it's smart and detailed and just absolutely awesome. I think I may just look for other works by Michael Stackpole as well. I think his Star Wars series is worth looking into.