By Robin Widmar
Cover art is the first thing a reader sees when they pick up a book. No matter how good or bad the book actually is, that first visual impression can influence someone’s decision to read said book or move on to something else. That was certainly the case with “Starter Villain” by renowned science fiction author John Scalzi. The portrait of a kitty in a business suit along with the words “Meet the new boss” was, for this reader, an irresistible invitation into a world where cats seem to be in charge. (Well, even more than they already are… .)
Spoiler alert: Alas, this novel is not exactly about supervillain cats masquerading as corporate CEOs, although crafty felines do play a significant role. No, this is the story of divorced former business reporter Charlie Fitzer, who now works as a substitute teacher and hopes to someday own a legendary local pub. Charlie is very much a down-on-his-luck, average guy aspiring to live an average life, while chasing a dream that is far out of his reach. Then his wealthy estranged uncle dies, and Charlie is named as the sole heir to a vast business empire.
In the aftermath of a most interesting funeral and a nearly successful assassination attempt, Charlie discovers that Uncle Jake’s successful chain of parking garages funded, shall we say, other activities. To put it bluntly, Charlie’s uncle was a villain, and Jake’s enemies are now coming after the heir to his operations.
Charlie is taken to his uncle’s island in the middle of the ocean, a classic secret lair complete with a real volcano. He is invited to a meeting (more like a “villain conference”) with members of the shadowy league of rich supervillains that tried to have him killed. Charlie’s once humdrum and slightly desperate existence is upended as he struggles to understand the “business” that he now runs, sort out allies from foes, settle internal labor disputes, and stay alive while doing it all. Fortunately, the operation comes with a capable staff to assist him — including spy cats.
It seems that Uncle Jake used genetically modified “sentient cats” to perform intelligence gathering tasks. “Human and electronic intelligence gathering are difficult,” explains Jake’s trusted assistant, Mathilda Morrison. “No one suspects a cat.” It turns out that Charlie’s very own cat, Hera, has been spying on him for a long time and reporting back to Uncle Jake and his organization. How does a cat submit its intel reports? It types on a keyboard and uses email, of course.
“Starter Villain” is a deliciously complex smorgasbord of supervillain tropes. Evil people with large bank accounts and even bigger egos? Check. Hidden vault containing wartime treasure? Check. Satellite-killing lasers? Yep. Potty mouth dolphins? OK, maybe that last one isn’t exactly a classic element, but it is funny as the pod tests Charlie’s negotiation skills during their efforts to unionize.
This is a well-written, funny and rather silly novel that feels as though the author had a good time writing it. The story moves at a nice, consistent pace with enough twists and quirky characters to keep it interesting. It could be rated PG-13 for profanity (the dolphins are not the only ones who swear a lot), but it is certainly no worse than many movies on streaming services. Although the ending is one that many readers might see coming, others will not. Either way, Charlie’s saga wraps up in a neat and satisfying manner.
“Starter Villain” is not a deep literary work, nor should it be. It sits squarely in the realm of pulp fiction; and, as an escapist read, it is a welcome antidote to the global negativity filling our daily news feeds.