2018’s They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded is the second novel in James Alan Gardner’s The Dark and the Spark1 series. It is a sequel to 2017’s All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault.
University of Waterloo students Jools, K2, Miranda, and Shar were victims of a classic Mad Scientist’s lab accident, which, far from killing them, imbued them all with Light-derived superhuman abilities. Each so-called Spark gained a different set of powers; each adopted a different code-name to reflect their new identities (Ninety-Nine, Zircon, Aria, and Dakini). All of them were drafted into the on-going struggle between the Darklings (the one percent who control society) and the Light.
The Light opposes the vampires, demons, wraiths, and other Darklings. That doesn’t mean the Light is good, as Jools/Ninety-Nine is painfully aware.
Once the group’s designated screw-up, Jools has become a paragon of human potential: she knows everything publicly available, has become a top expert in every known field, is superbly fit, and can heal herself. Not to mention the magical hockey stick that shows up when she summons it. Still, her friends are tougher and have even more exotic powers. Gaining superpowers has done nothing to soothe Jools’ self-loathing.
Jools has a lot of reasons to hate herself: failing grades, drinking, promiscuity. Now she’s worried that being a super-genius will turn her into a Mad Scientist. She’s inventing stuff; she’s making stuff; and she’s having periodic blackouts while she invents and makes stuff. She’s not in control and this scares her.
Jools’ superpowers are still a closely held secret, but the fact she was in the exploding laboratory is not. This makes her of considerable interest to a Darkling named Reaper, who wants her unwilling assistance in evaluating an exotic gun found in that lab. Jools bows to necessity, does her part, and tries to forget about the whole thing.
That should have been the end of it. Of course it isn’t. News of the mysterious gun has somehow leaked. Robin Hood and his Merry Men aren’t much like the folk figures from whom they’ve borrowed their collective name, but they do share one thing with them: they love to steal from the rich, which is to say from the Darklings who run the world. The gun is clearly important to the Darklings. Therefore Robin and his Merry Men (not all of whom are men) must have it.
Robin attempts to steal the gun several times. Points for enthusiasm, fewer points for actual success. No points at all for not being deterred by the question “why are the Darkling being so public about where the gun is?” Jools gets caught in the crossfire between Darklings and Light twice: the second time she is injured badly enough to test even her impressive regenerative abilities.
When she regains consciousness, Jools is an involuntary guest of the Merry Men; Jools was in her civvie ID and the Merry Men did not suspect she could heal on her own. They’ve stashed her in a healing tank, hoping to save her life The Merry Men have no idea that they’ve inadvertently kidnapped one of Waterloo’s newest superheroes.
Not that it matters in the long run. Once Jools has served her purpose, which almost certainly involves falling for Robin’s super-seductive wiles, the Merry Men will simply wipe her memory and send her on her way.
Light is not necessarily good.
I noticed this interesting passage at the end of the book:
Oh, and speaking of Kitchener, thanks to the entire city for mutely accepting that it doesn’t exist in the Dark/Spark world. There’s a tragic story there, and maybe some day I’ll get around to telling it.
I am as shocked as you are! I’ve lived in Kitchener for
over thirty almost forty years. I hope I’m not soot on the wall in this continuity.
This setting, unlike so many other superhero worlds, seems to have therapists. Jools, alas, is not the sort of person who would avail herself of their services. Instead she has been trying to drown her anxiety in booze. This isn’t working all that well. It rarely does even for normal humans, but it’s even less effective for Jools. She’s super-resistant to alcohol. Since she’s such a super-genius in all known fields, which would include psychotherapy, perhaps one day she will manage to perform therapy on herself. Or she could build a Mad Science device that could perform therapy on her. That would be a completely reasonable thing to do.
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault sketched out the general rules for the Dark/Spark universe. This novel explores some of the implications. In particular, being empowered carries with it some disquieting side-effects: superhumans are the Light’s means to an end and if Sparks don’t start off with the right cognitive framework the Light will modify their minds to fit. One character draws parallels between what the Light does to Sparks and how T. gondii alters mouse behavior to suit T. gondii’s need to propagate. Jools is self-aware enough to notice the changes.
Consent issues seem to be an inherent part of superhero stories. If it’s not otherworldly forces transforming people into paragons, it’s said paragons convincing themselves that a little mental tinkering in the cause of Good and Niceness is acceptable. Given how badly the Merry Men come off in this story, I am very curious how Gardner will handle these issues when it is mentalist Dakini’s turn in the spotlight.
Gun is very tightly focused on Jools. She’s more self-centred than the first novel’s viewpoint character and spends a lot of time thinking about herself. She’s also dealing with Darklings and Merry Men alone rather than in the company of her friends, which would tend to throw her back on herself.
Firmly in the grand old tradition of flawed super-humans nevertheless doing their best to overcome their personal foibles, this is a worthy addition to this ongoing series.
1: How Things Work in This Superhero Universe
Several decades ago, the unholy forces of the dark realized they were missing out by not monetizing their unique resources. Accordingly, any stupendously rich person willing to sign an infernal contract and hand over a large sum of money could buy conversion into a Darkling, an immortal creature of the night. Soon after, the upper level of society became dominated by persons know to be demons, vampires, werewolves, and what have you. This seems to have made surprisingly little difference in how things are run.
Soon after the Darklings appeared, common folk began to suffer origins events that granted them abilities beyond those of mortal humans. These Sparks3 are inclined to oppose the Darklings. Sparks have superhuman clarity of purpose, which is a bit hard on the unpowered caught between Light and Dark.
2: K was called Kim in the first Dark/Spark book but ze changed their name early in this one.
3: Spark is a term that turns up over and over in otherwise unrelated James Alan Gardner continuities.