Review: Blaze of Glory by Sheryl Nantus

Welcome to a world where cities are pockmarked with the scars of superhuman battles — hero vs. villain, power vs. power; the world saved on a weekly basis. But when an alien race arrives in enormous avocado-shaped ships and demands a part in the action, it becomes obvious that all this spectacle is merely part of a hoax of unimaginable proportions. Jo Tanis must find a way to unite the surviving superheroes and repel invaders that seem to have no physical weakness. Using her wits alongside her ability to manipulate electricity, Jo turns old enemies into friends, finds love, and gradually untangles the puzzles of her world. As the facade begins to crumble and Jo slips out from under the control of the secretive and powerful Agency, she discovers that her greatest strengths have nothing to do with her powers …

Welcome to a world where cities are pockmarked with the scars of superhuman battles — hero vs. villain, power vs. power; the world saved on a weekly basis. But when an alien race arrives in enormous avocado-shaped ships and demands a part in the action, it becomes obvious that all this spectacle is merely part of a hoax of unimaginable proportions. Jo Tanis must find a way to unite the surviving superheroes and repel invaders that seem to have no physical weakness. Using her wits alongside her ability to manipulate electricity, Jo turns old enemies into friends, finds love, and gradually untangles the puzzles of her world. As the facade begins to crumble and Jo slips out from under the control of the secretive and powerful Agency, she discovers that her greatest strengths have nothing to do with her powers …

Well-written superheroes are always more than flash and bang. Their uniqueness rests outside of their physical abilities, in the other ways that they struggle — against egotism, heartbreak, anger, gluttony, obsession. Cheryl Nantus’s new novel finds a comfortable place in a long tradition of YA superhero fiction where the fights are just as important as the emotional battles. Despite pulling on common themes, Blaze of Glory finds a niche that is both engaging and unique: a young woman struggling to become the leader that Earth desperately needs and gradually learning to step into her womanhood with confidence (not to mention the power to direct electrical currents); a ragtag band of improbable friends and heroes; and an interstellar villain with a weak grasp of human culture combined with an insatiable thirst for battle.

Following in the footsteps of other recent superhero fiction, Blaze of Glory invokes instant nostalgia for Toronto’s downtown core. For those that know the city well, imagining the story taking place in cozy Queen Street coffee shops, familiar parks, and the city’s beaches is unavoidable. The names may be changed, but Nantus catches the ambiance of the city with satisfying clarity — albeit with the cynical eye typical of long-time residents. Yes, the CNE is a dazzling show of light and carnival food, but it smells like manure. Yes, Lake Ontario is beautiful, but it is hazardous to venture into those waters on warm summer days when the heat brings too much E. coli to the shoreline. Other references to the city are enough to make anyone smile — take, for example, the moment when the characters decide that the CN tower would work well as a gargantuan antenna. Much like Nantus herself, the characters skip back and forth across the border and between cities throughout the novel. Despite this, they consistently look to Toronto with a sideways reverence, revealing a fondness and appreciation for both the the city’s strengths and its weaknesses.

Like her setting, Nantus’s narrative is an amalgam of long-time tropes regurgitated and revised with new flavour. It would be too easy to criticize her story as a typical invasion-with-a-twist, and petty to point out all the other writers who have used similar ideas (in one of the most jarring instances for avid science fiction readers, the story actually includes a description of faster-than-light travel that involves one of the characters drawing two dots on a piece of paper and then folding the paper so that the dots are next to each other). However old, these ideas serve as a platform for the development of a coming-of-age story that is a blast to read. From spur of the moment fistfights to daring invade-the-fortress style missions, the action is unstoppable, and the character development in between gives some depth to heroes that in a less capable hand would be cardboard cutouts. Her villains and heroes live in a dynamic of good and evil that is quickly revealed to be rife with complexity. The story relentlessly challenges the assumptions of its characters, tearing apart their world as villains become friends and as sidekicks are exposed as oppressors.

While Sheryl Nantus’s story is a heartfelt portrayal of Toronto and an imaginative and engaging tale of superheroes and aliens, it falters in other areas. Nantus’s female protagonist fights against her own weaknesses to take a position of leadership and of power among the other supers — but while doing so she takes every opportunity to trip on gender stereotypes surrounding strength and emotionality. Jo Tanis is quick to admire her male companions for their strength, and quick to break down in their arms when faced with emotionally difficult situations. She is alone in being a female character with power and growing confidence — the other women in the story are universally overemotional, physically weak and endowed with powers stereotypical of female supers (prescience, telepathy, etc.) That being said, Blaze of Glory’s moderately regressive depictions of teenage gender and sexuality are miles ahead of other popular YA fantasy titles, such as the unavoidable Twilight.

Don’t pick up Blaze of Glory expecting to find deeper themes that comment on society, politics and literary predecessors, or to offer a unique or insightful take on the first contact theme. Look to it instead for a tale of unexpected adventures and fast-paced firefights in familiar settings, and for a courageous role model who, despite her powers, never feels so “super” that it becomes difficult to relate to her. To the contrary, Jo Tanis’s superhuman struggles never cease to feel very real.


Paul Jarvey is a Toronto-based writer and activist. He is a lifelong devotee of science fiction, an omni-inquisitive Canadian, and a firm believer in the political power of literature. He holds a Masters in Economics and keeps himself busy working as a post-secondary policy consultant. If you had been standing on Mars on the day that he was born, you could have watched the Earth passing in front of the Sun.

Blaze of Glory by Cheryl Nantus is currently available as an eBook from Samhain Publishing and is forthcoming in print from Samhain in February 2011.

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