Audiobook Review: Starter Villain by John Scalzi

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Hello again old friends. This is Nephrite. I hope you haven’t forgotten me. I think it’s time I attempt to flex these old writing muscles of mine, don’t you? And what else could I return to writing with but an audiobook review of a new story by something of a long-standing name in the field of science fiction, or in this case supervillain comedy John Scalzi.

John Scalzi has been writing science fiction of all stripes since the late nineties when he released his first novel Agent to The Stars in 1997 and then made it freely available on his personal website in 1999. Since then, Agent has been officially republished on several occasions and Scalzi has written numerous different series and stand-alone novels and short stories including the Old Man’s War series, The Interdependency series and stand-alone novels Fuzzy Nation and The Kaiju Preservation Society among others. As well as all of this he has won several Hugo Awards and had a good number of his short stories adapted for the Netflix series Love, Death & Robots with Scalzi himself adapting one story and writing a sequel to one especially for the series.

Scalzi is well known for several of his novels containing a moderate strain of humour even if the book is not explicitly intended to be a comedy. This is especially true in recent years as both The Kaiju Preservation Society – which introduced me to Scalzi – and Starter Villain were written in an attempt to do something more outright fun and silly than some previous novels in a post-virus world.

cover of Starter Villain with a cat's face filling most of the image

Speaking of Starter Villain I should probably discuss the plot: Charlie Fitzer has not got a lot going for him. An ex-journalist turned reluctant substitute teacher whose wife left him and whose father passed away recently, he had one goal and hope. Become the new owner of the town’s beloved institution of a watering hole, McDougal’s Pub alongside his beloved pet cat Hera.

After failing to get a business loan to become the new owner, Charlie finds out one more piece of information: His long-estranged rich uncle Jake Baldwin has just recently died and his estate have named Charlie as his heir…with one caveat – Uncle Jake was a super villain complete with volcano island lair and super intelligent talking cat spies. Now that it’s up to Charlie to learn the tricks of the trade, how will he, Hera and the rest of his suddenly acquired business empire deal with Uncle Jakes old business rivals who have a vendetta stretching back decades and a willingness to do anything to get what they want?

Starter Villain is one of the most fun and lighthearted books I’ve listened to in a long while. Yes Charlie’s life is not idyllic and yes that comes up often, but the book is a breezy listen. I got through the whole thing in two days because I didn’t want to put it down and stayed up late just having a blast. Plus I relistened to the entire audio immediately after finishing it to write this! There is just a fun energy to this book!

Charlie’s personality and inner monologues feel genuine regardless if the thoughts displayed in a scene contain confusion, sarcastic jokes, the kind of shocked joy you’d expect from a child opening Christmas presents or frustration at a necessary but annoying lawyer. On top of this his interactions with the intelligent cats, fellow humans or currently striking intelligent dolphins feel like the reaction your average decent human being would most likely have.

Aside from Charlie and Hera, the cast includes Matilda – or Till – Morrison, Uncle Jake’s right-hand lady until his death who has now become Charlie’s right-hand lady and personal confidant. One more than willing to call out certain bullshit attitudes and behaviours while working to ensure this particular fish out of water can adapt to the villain lifestyle.

You also have Charlie’s business rivals, The Lombardi Convocation – the supposed in-universe inspiration for SPECTRE from the James Bond franchise and the closest thing in existence to the Illuminati. With several members coming from VERY old money and industries currently in the process of either making themselves irrelevant by modernisation or by destroying the very thing they need to function; it could be interesting to listen to this particular clash.

Last but not least in terms of major characters you also have Anton Dubrev the supposed leader of the Convocation and definitely most senior member. Dubrev is definitely the most reasonable member of the group but also by far considered the most dangerous, fiscally responsible and intelligent. How much of the information he gives is truth and how much is lies?

To quote a certain Star Trek Cardassian tailor “My dear Doctor, they’re all true.”

“Even the lies?”

“ESPECIALLY the lies.”

Speaking of Star Trek, the narration for the audiobook edition of Starter Villain is provided by Wil Wheaton. Wesley Crusher himself. Mr Wheaton has a prolific history in audiobook narration going back a number of years narrating Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Strange Weather by Joe Hill and the modern Audible edition of The Martian by Andy Weir among others. On top of this he has become to all intents and purposes Scalzi’s personal narrator having narrated SEVERAL of Scalzi’s books in their audio editions. His narration is energetic and fun with the kind of feeling you only get when someone is genuinely enjoying what they read. His performances as Dubrev and the sentient labour striking dolphins – who apparently learnt international 1970s  labour union song Look For The Union Label at some point – were especially enjoyable as a listener.

I’m not claiming the book is perfect. It is a very ‘Talky’ book, with a very specific sense of humour I could almost describe as an American take on Douglas Adams by way of Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion. I personally adore it and repeatedly laughed my head off but humour of all things is VERY subjective.

In conclusion I hope some of my readers will check out Mr Scalzi’s work especially Starter Villain and have fun with it. The book is clearly written by an author enjoying themselves and having fun with a concept and I look forward to the next John Scalzi book in this style. Fingers crossed we get a sequel one day to The Kaiju Preservation Society. Hopefully see you next time when I come out of my personal volcano island lair.

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Sayonara! Nephrite

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