John W. Otte
I picked up Failstate because I met the author, John Otte, at the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference. And because I like superhero stories.
+ reality TV
+ sibling rivalry
+ coming-of-age story
+ love triangle
+ crime show
Robin (Rob) Laughlin is overshadowed both in the superhero world and the halls of high school by his popular older brother, Ben. Ben has the good looks, Ben is their mom’s favorite, Ben has the ratings on the reality TV show, where he competes as Gauntlet to win a superhero license. Rob also competes on the show as Failstate, the wannabe superhero who can barely control his own powers. Powers that mainly seem to center around destroying production equipment.
Failstate lacks what it takes to win the competition…and the heart of the girl both he and his brother fall for. But he’s not going down without a fight.
The book’s not all humor and rivalry. Things take a dire turn when Failstate’s fellow contestant and new friend is killed. Can he solve the murder before someone else dies – maybe him?
One of the charms of the book is how much fun Otte takes in designing and describing superheroes. Over a dozen appear in the novel, all with distinct powers, costumes, and personalities. The supporting cast is also vivid. Take new student Haruki, who is convinced aliens are stalking him. Or Failstate’s mom, who can’t forgive him for his father’s death. Or P.G., the youth pastor who is at once wise counselor and fanboy.
The cast of interesting characters goes on, but in describing them I might give away too much of the plot. And Otte does a good job of blending in classic superhero dilemmas (oh no, evil genius and out-of-control giant robots) with fresh twists that keep the reader guessing.
Failstate is a relatable hero, at time selfless, at times annoyed at the world, and self-conscious. What exactly is he hiding under that hood besides his secret identity?
Christian themes are not new to the superhero genre. Some people have read Superman as a messiah figure for decades. But Otte handles Christianity in a way that is at once more direct and realistic. You don’t have to sort through analogies to find Christianity, although some analogies are there. Failstate is a Christian, no bones about it. And not some Superchristian stereotype, but an authentic, flawed, believing kid. He prays before going into battle, but there are days he’d rather skip church. He invites friends to youth group but worries about social dynamics. He sees the youth pastor as a real guy who may not be able to solve all his problems, but who can give decent advice. He finds it hard to extend Christian charity to his scene-stealing older brother. Christianity empowers Failstate as a character in some touching ways, and always supports the plot organically.
Failstate’s relationship with his brother is one of my favorite parts of the story. As is the blend of super and normal and humorous teenage voice. Take this quote:
My back and ribs were killing me. Had I broken something? This would be a fun discussion at the doctor’s office. How did I get injured? Well, my super-powered older brother tossed me through a mall window. I wondered how that would look on an insurance form.
Overall, Failstate is a likeable underdog. He takes us on an exciting, fun journey.