Since it's a supers kind of week here...
The Web of Arachnos by Robert Weinberg - 2005 CDS Books
I recently finished the first City of Heroes novel "The Web of Arachnos". I think it's a later entry in an interesting ongoing progression. We originally had fantasy novels some of which influenced early D&D (Conan, Newhon, LOTR), then we had a wave of fantasy novels influenced by D&D in that they involved players being pulled into a world like that of their game (Guardians of the Flame, Quag Keep), then a wave of direct D&D gameworld novels (Dragonlance), then a wave of novels that often started as a D&D campaign (Feist's novels). Now we have a series of novels (and Warcraft has them too) based on an MMORPG coming back around to the written form that started the whole thing in the first place. There's not a perfect circular flow here but it's close enough to be interesting to me. Given that COH is a superhero game and world you might think that comic books would be more appropriate - it is and they did that too, but I'm not going to review them here because a) my comic interest dwindled after the 80's so I am not current and b) I haven't read them yet.
To the book - I do play COH and so I am familiar with the major characters pictured on the cover, but I have to say that doesn't really matter. This book is a "how it all began" novel, a prequel to the modern day and the current time in the game, so knowledge of the game or the universe is not required. I think it's a good idea for a new book series, but I suspect that plastering the COH logo on the cover instantly limits the audience to a degree. That said I imagine the audience for the "superhero novel that's not a graphic novel" is pretty limited to begin with.
Side Note - I saw a lot of parallels to the first Wild Cards novel which covered the origin of super powers in that universe and the high points of history up to the 1980's, setting up the rest of the novels that were largely set in the then-modern day time of the mid 1980's. Similarly, this COH book begins in the 1920's and moves into the 1930's covering the origin of powers with a single event and the first appearance of many of the iconic COH heroes and villains.
But is the book any good? In short: yes. It sets up[ the 'point of divergence' where the game world diverges from our own, the origin of powers, it introduces the major players of Statesman and Lord Recluce along with several other supporting characters both good and bad, and covers the formation of the first super group. As I was reading it, I was thinking that it would have made an interesting "Season 1" of a TV show along the lines of Heroes.
The main characters are interesting and undergo several personality changes during the course of the novel and the reasons behind these changes are clear and make sense for those characters. Statesman and Lord Recluce both are well-developed and feel real enough to make sense.
The setting is refreshingly broad - City of Heroes is based around a single city, Paragon City, which is a typical American East Coast city. The novel travels far beyond this particular setting. I like it when game fiction explores the less well covered parts of the game's setting and this novel spends quite a bit of time in Europe which is not featured in the game. This adds to the realistic 'feel' of the book.
The scope of the novel is just right - it focuses on a few major characters, ramps up to a major event which changes them, and then spends the rest of the story exploring how that event impacts their lives, their families, and the world they live in.
I'll get right to it - the action scenes are not all that impressive, especially for a super-hero novel. The fights are limited and small in scale for most of the story. There is a huge battle near the end but conveying that fight seems to be a little beyond what the author could muster. It's not a huge flaw in the book, but it made me wonder what Mike Stackpole could have done with the same material.
On a related note the high point of the book could have been the nemesis confrontation near the end of the story, where Statesman and Recluce come face to face with full powers and some strong differences of opinion but I found it lacking a little something - it's not bad, it's just not the climactic moment that it could have been.
My final nitpick, and it is minor, is that Monica seems to be on the verge of developing powers late in the novel but there is no explanation as to why. Then she is given a gift at the end of the novel which will give her powers directly. I just felt a little fuzzy at the end of the story as to exactly what her powers were going to be or if she was just really good at karate. Hopefully the next book will cover some of this.
Final Comments: This is a good piece of game fiction. If you are at all interested in superheroes, it's worth a read. If you play City of Heroes and want to know more about the history and origins of the game world, it's invaluable. If you are thinking about starting a superhero RPG and want to see how someone else set things up it's a great resource, especially if you are interested in a golden age campaign.
Main Characters: Interesting, realistic, well-developed, and very sealable for a game of your own.
Supporting Characters: Interesting, good motivations, just enough information to whet the appetite for more.
Plot: Good. It's fairly linear but there are multiple heroes facing 2 major bad guy organizations plus some corrupt city officials so it's not a simple 2 sided conflict.
Action Scenes: Adequate but not the strong point of the book. This is one area that really should improve in future novels.
Resolution: Good to Very Good in that the world is set up for future adventures but it's not a totally satisfying ending for the main characters. It's similar to a movie that is clearly setting up a sequel that will continue with the same antagonist.
Overall: Very Good - I recommend it if you are at all interested in superhero stories or Supers RPG's.