Book Title: Less Than Hero (Standalone)
Author: S.G. Browne
Number of pages: 368
Convulsions. Nausea. Headaches. Sudden weight gain. For the pharmaceutical soldiers on the front lines of medical science—volunteers who test experimental drugs for cash—these common side effects are a small price to pay to defend your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of antidepressants.
Lloyd Prescott, thirty-year-old professional guinea pig and victim of his own inertia, is the first to notice the bizarre, seemingly implausible consequences of years of testing not-quite-legal drugs: his lips go numb, he becomes overwhelmed with exhaustion, and instantly a stranger crumples into a slumbering heap before him. Under cover of night, Lloyd and his guinea pig friends band together to project their debilitating side effects onto petty criminals who prey upon the innocent. When a horrible menace with powers eerily similar to their own threatens the city, only one force can stop this evil: the handful of brave men who routinely undergo clinical trials.
(re: Goodreads @ Less Than Hero – S.G. Browne)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
— Features the everyday apathetic hero fueled by ridiculous abilities (i.e. makes people vomit on will)
— Narrative follows a first-person POV, character vignettes, and snippets of news articles
— Socioeconomic diversity in characterization albeit non-descript nature of a [mostly] male cast
— Well paced, dialogue-driven page turner that can often find itself struggling with expositive info-dumps (e.g. listing side effects of certain drugs); bantering is full of sarcastic LOL-worthy wit
— Revelations feel a bit too neat and tidy; characters don’t experience steep growth
— Rating: 3.5/5
Whenever I see fantasy a la superhero, I will wave that wormy arm in the air holding a “sign me up banner”. I quite enjoy them; and this book is like the adult-ish take on all of the pew pew super power goodness without the actual inhumane abilities.
Full disclosure: I received a finished copy of Less Than Hero through PAI Media. I extend thanks to Gallery Books and the contact at Pai Media for providing me the opportunity to review this title.
Disclaimer: Potential spoilers inherent to this review from here onward.
Imagine this: you’re a newly born adult, the owner of a solid degree from whatever college, and you’ve started the job you’ve always dreamed of. Then life kinda shits on you–and bam—you’re 30 years old, basically unemployed, lack a sense of direction and motivation, and are a public servant to rule them all: a guinea pig for pharmaceutical drug tests. Good trials are fortuitous and leave no lingering side effects. Then there are other times when…well, let’s just say you’ve had better days. You’re kind of society’s unsung hero. But after a recent clinical trial run, you start feeling rather bizarre. You make bank—so that’s good—but something feels off this time; something extraordinarily ordinary, and it only gets weirder when your yawn knocks a kid out in public with the zzz’s.
The narrative takes place in the state of New York and gives shout-outs to the hole-in-the-wall communities, food joints, and the various iconic landscapes within Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens’s. Regarding diversity in particular, Less Than Hero does reiterate the sentiments of “first world, white-people problems” but the caveat is that Browne’s characterizations are keenly self-aware and provokes a nuanced portrayal over and beyond the non-descript, white-skinned traditionalist.
See: embracing diversity extends beyond racial profiling. It can be visualized through socioeconomic portrayals on the rudimentary premise of simply walking a different life. Yes—the majority of the cast is white males. But because it’s set in America and follows the near-impoverished average bloke living the middle ground, I’ll challenge that the nature of these characters are vividly imagined and quite tangible as a representation of a key demographic.
There’s also something sublime about exposition that’s largely satire-based taking jabs at the pharmaceutical industry. Being in Iglooland (that’s Canada to you), I’m fairly certain that drug advertisements are banned. To read about it in a gritty, matter-of-fact style was actually amusing to me and it’s where the writing shines best. It’s jokingly honest in its portrayal of the obscene baggage that comes with the small caplets that are supposed to better the culture of lifestyle and choice. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought twice about the repercussions of substance use.
Less Than Hero follows the first-person account of Lloyd Prescott and incorporates vignettes of news reporting and the perspective of his friends (referred to as an interlude) to prop up the character-driven nature of this story. While there isn’t much of urgency in conflict to say that Less Than Hero has a prevalent plot, it’s the nonsensical life objectives (or lack thereof) enjoyed by the guinea pig misfits that keeps the ball rolling.
While the exposition may be refreshing for those who rarely hear about these advertisements aside from when they need a pop a pill, it can feel like an onslaught of info-dumps a la “this is drug a; the side effects include word-vomit-here”. I was okay with it for the most part though.
That being said, the writing maintained a good pace and does follow the conventions of superhero 101 (if I can call it that) from training to the final boss fight. The most obvious thing about the writing is in the conversational wit Browne is able to weave into the story. Imagine kicking back with your buds with a refreshing glass of your-choice-of-alcoholic-beverage and throw in genuine randomness of sarcastic banter where you’re chirping each other without discretion. That’s the meat and strength in this particular narrative. But then again, I’m a guy who finds a lot of things funny—so maybe I’m a terrible sample size.
Aside from the many laughs and the great deal of empathy I had for these characters, what stands out is the ridiculousness to which their new found abilities meld with each personality. At first, their voices do sound the same—I’ll admit confusion on my part—but that comes with not having explored their stories. It’s only until their tattered rags become unravelled that I begun to appreciate the immaturity and dynamics between this close knit group of friends.
Dialogue has a heavy hand in their respective growths. With socioeconomic diversity ranging from high school dropouts to divorcees, there’s a story representative of the struggles of the common stakeholder to life. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that some of these characters are hollow because they lack the aspiration throughout most of the book to be more than what they are. Although if you can write a story where their exchanges are some of the things you look forward to—character development itself can be passed as an afterthought of sorts.
The two characters that did matter from a growth standpoint are Lloyd and his girlfriend, Sophie. As the sole female voice in this story, she was definitely a no-nonsense type of lady (even if she scatters pixie dust everywhere). Their relationship struggles through the common tropes of miscommunication but it isn’t so much as a contrivance as it is simply Lloyd not knowing wtf to do to save exposure of his abilities. I mean, why scream something into the world unless you’re certain? You’d just look crazy at that point…and Lloyd has taken enough pills to go past crazy.
I’m unsure with how this story ended and the revelations therein. It just felt kind of easy. I enjoy the treatments of open-endedness and while it works to a certain degree for Less Than Hero, the fulfillment felt rather empty.
But of all the ridiculousness in the contemporary-inspired sci-fi superpowers given to these characters, the criticism this book offers is something to look forward to. I might be pulling for straws here but the storytelling feels like a knack on social cultures of big-box institutions influencing the everyday. By rooting the story in a hero-versus-villain mentality, the drugs (and abilities) take on a metaphorical pretense of encouraging a better way to live; to fit into that particular cookie-cutter mold. Through the abilities of the “villain”, there’s a sense that propaganda is used in subtle ways to immediately force snap judgments. It reasons that the certainty we hope for isn’t something that is self-justified but rather influenced by extraneous factors. That to move past the ordinary, the hero needs to create their own path.
Without a doubt, I had a good time with this book. It’s been a while since I laughed this much and if you can write a book where I’d be okay with just reading continual bickering, then I have to give you props for succeeding in that regard. Otherwise, the plot can be considered thin and not all character revelations worked for me. So come for the story but stay for the characters—that’s all I can really offer.
And just for fun, what ridiculous superpower would you want to have? Mine might involve something along the lines of giving my enemies a stiff limb (re: charley horse). Because why not? Or stomach cramps leading to diarrhea–ooh, that’s a solid option too!