I love superhero stories. I’m also very critical of them so I was very pleased that it delivered on the amount of hype that had accumulated in my head. In short, Paula Richey’s novel is awesome.
Penance is the story of Penance Copper. To sum up Penance, think Jubilee from the X-Men as something of a southern street urchin but with powers that are actually fleshed out, interesting, and written well. We get to see some seriously cool use of energy powers here. Penance is basically a living nuclear reactor. This doesn’t mean she’s overpowered, though. There are some scary implications surrounding her powers, as there should be, and her limitations are treated appropriately and interestingly.
The story revolves around Penance trying to redeem herself from being the pawn of abusive psychopath Acid. Acid is, at first glance, a petty thug with a drug problem. He’s also a Prime (this universe’s designation for superpowered individuals) with corrosive touch. The plot jumpstarts right into Acid ordering a hit on The Justice, a superhero. Penance is to be the assassin, but she starts to have second thoughts about where her life is headed.
Things spiral fast into a very fun story that never gets boring and moves along at a comfortably brisk pace. From an alien invasion at a football stadium, to a jailbreak, human trafficking with intergalactic implications, to androids, empaths, jailbreaks, and superpowered fights, Paula Richey treats us to a healthy dose of action and imagination.
Penance is everything a superhero story should be. The heroes are heroic and likable. The villains are nasty and underhanded. The story is uplifting and a lot of fun. The trend in comics and superhero stories lately has been to be murky, grimdark, and subversive. Paula goes the opposite direction and gives us something wonderful and classic that also feels fresh and new.
This is an origin story of sorts, but it is also a redemption story. On her journey, Penance encounters religion. I’ll make a quick note here that the author does not browbeat or smother the reader with messaging. The religious content is tasteful and handled very well. Well, enough that I am confident anybody would be able to read and enjoy this. The encounters help impel Penance toward what she truly desires: A better self and a better life.
This is exactly what a superhero story is supposed to do. Superhero stories were always meant to be uplifting and fun. They’re supposed to be inspirational and show people trying to do their best. Paula Richey does more for the superhero genre than any big comic publisher has done in over a decade.
We’re also given a second protagonist in Kail, an eight-foot-tall alien from an absolutely terrible planet. Think of a society where the people who love taxes are in control of everything. Now, add a god-emperor who believes he owns everything, and an oppressive caste system and you have an idea of Kail’s planet.
His part of the story has the best ‘fish-out-of-water’ element I’ve read in a long time. The cultural misunderstandings and interactions are fantastic. The alien culture feels incredibly well developed without getting bogged down in over-explanation of nuts and bolts. This is top-notch world-building. Kail’s personality and situation serve as a good foil for Penance and their interactions are charming and amusing.
Anybody who likes superhero stores and is tired of the current depressing trends in DC and Marvel will love this. If you liked Sanderson’s Reckoners trilogy but thought it had too much focus on mechanics and had a somewhat convoluted plot, this is definitely for you as it does not have those trappings. It’s also clean young adult fiction, which is as rare as a unicorn, these days. A huge point in favor of this book. The language is tame and there is no sex. I’d be comfortable giving this to a teenager that wants a good superhero story. Or an adult, for that matter.
Get your copy from Amazon here.
Or you can get it direct from the publisher here.
Note: This is part of Silver Empire’s Heroes Unleashed shared universe which features other great authors like Kai Wai Cheah and Morgon Newquist. CHeck out the series here.
Note 2: Penance is eligible for a Dragon Award. Go here for information on how to nominate it and other eligible book suggestions!