Brenna Raney’s 2023 debut, The Meister of Decimen City, is a superhero novel. Although perhaps superhero is the wrong word.
Decimen City’s resident genius ditz (Rex) combines brilliance and good intentions with a lack of social skills and an inability to foresee complications. However, thanks in part to the never-ending efforts of her lawyer Flora and an AI named Aya to manage Rex’s reputation, Rex is popular or at least tolerated. It helps that one of her projects produced a cure for cancer.
Heretofore, her status as a lovable knucklehead and her adherence to certain agreements with the city has protected her from the legal consequences of her wacky hijinks. The rampaging cloned intelligence-amplified dinosaurs … that was one misstep too many. Now Rex has to deal with the Superbeings Oversight Contingencies organization.
Rex would argue that she isn’t a superbeing. Oversight thinks otherwise. Indeed, she may be on the path to supervillain-hood. The organization ranks her as a four, one step below full-blown Doctor-Doom-level supervillainy.
Rex’s lair facility is now filled with Oversight agents, there to make sure that she isn’t hiding anything illegal. Rex really had to scramble to hide all of her easy-to-misinterpret research efforts before her babysitters arrived1. While the agents on site — Lewis and Peter — are amiable enough, their presence places enormous demands on her negligible social skills.
Her new work and living arrangements would be burden enough, but she has other problems. She’s trying to figure out how to dump boyfriend Dillon. She’s worried that she’s much too interested in a frenemy (the Lightning) and the frenemy’s form-fitting costume. Better social skills would help here too.
Before she was the Meister of Decimen City, Rex was a bright eight-year-old who accidentally turned her sister Vivian bright blue and imbued her with powers beyond mortal ken. This was the origin story of superhero Vivid Blue, who has telekinetic powers. Soon after, Rex’s jealous and abusive twin, Sam, decided he too wanted superpowers. Rex complied, but the results were far from positive. Sam got receptive telepathy, something he cannot turn off. It drives him nuts. He became supervillain Last Dance.
Rex is very sensibly afraid of Sam and wants nothing to do with him. Sam, on the other hand, is certain that Rex owes him a cure. Cue conflict … one to which Oversight is certain to overreact.
Although they are very different characters with very different motivations and issues, one cannot help but notice parallels between Soon I Will Be Invincible‘s Doctor Impossible and Rex. Both use their vast intelligence to make extremely poor life choices.
While it is clear that senior members of Oversight are overstepping their boundaries in dealing with Rex, it must be admitted that they have a few good reasons. Such as the rampaging dinosaurs and the AI, Aya. Rex just wanted some friends! Who could have guessed that they could be potential existential threats?
Rex has not learned caution when conducting research. She has learned to be more secretive. She has not learned to guess at possible consequences; she is still clueless when it comes to predicting how other humans will react, and even more clueless when it comes to understanding her own erratic impulses and decision-making2. In an endearing manner, of course.
As this synopsis suggests, much of the book focuses on feelings and trauma, not to mention painful self-exploration3. Miscommunication and awkward conversations abound. If they were to edited out, this book about be about half as long as it is4. If you like this sort of thing, this book is for you.
However … the novel may also be of interest to fans of more conventional superhero tales. There are form-fitting costumes, face-punching, villainous schemes (confounded and otherwise), obligatory slap-fights preceding team ups, and all the other accoutrements of superhero adventures.
The Meister of Decimen City is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). I could not find it at Apple Books in the time I was willing to invest trying to circumvent their comprehensive lack of a functioning search function for their bookstore.
1: Presumably, this sort of issue is why many supervillains locate their lairs research facilities in obscure locations.
2: She seems to assume that the outcome she wants has to be the only possible outcome.
3: In the sense of self-reflection and processing. Although I have to admit if there was ever a character who might decide to restructure their own cognitive structure using cutting-edge, badly thought-out brain surgery, it would be Rex.
4: Comic book fans may understand what I mean when I say this book is closer to the Marvel end of things, where considerable plot is generated by entrenched personal issues, than it is to the DC titles whose characters have often been
shallow, badly written, often so indistinguishable that all that is needed for one character to pass as another is for the two to swap clothes iconic.