We all long to, one day, wake up and inherit a ludicrously large sum of money from some distant relative we’ve hardly heard of. But what if that inheritance comes with a catch? Namely, control of a vast network of loosely connected companies – and the title of “supervillain”. That’s the premise behind John Scalzi’s Starter Villain. It’s a riotously funny skewering of self-important billionaires and the games they play with the world. One part The Office, one part Austin Powers-style spy parody, and wholly enjoyable from start to finish. Buckle up because this is a ride you won’t want to miss.
A Light, Breezy Read
Charlie lives a relatively unassuming life. He’s broke, works as a substitute teacher, and is inches away from living in his car with his oddly intelligent cats. But when news of his estranged uncle’s death reaches him, Charlie’s luck begins to change. He finds himself the sole heir of his uncle’s estate and the new CEO of his uncle’s startlingly villainous company. But life as a supervillain CEO isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, what with the requisite backstabbings and assassination attempts from an organization of irate rival supervillains. But perhaps the inexperienced Charlie might be just the kick in the teeth this industry needs. Or maybe he’s just in over his head.
Starter Villain is a light, breezy romp packed with tons of pop culture references, enough gags to make a sitcom writer jealous, and an immense amount of fun. A book stuffed with so many enjoyable little moments that there’s simply no way to share them all. It’s the literary equivalent of a good parody movie. A send-up of the kinds of supervillains you might find in the James Bond series – but with all the sensibilities of Austin Powers, Get Smart, and The Office. For as familiar as Starter Villain frequently feels, it never fails to be wholly original and staggeringly enjoyable. It’s not quite a beach read, per se, but it’s definitely the kind of book you read as a palate cleanse. Something you can turn off your brain and simply vibe with.
Endless Amounts of Fun
If you’ve ever read one of Scalzi’s books before, then you know exactly what to expect here. Like The Kaiju Preservation Society, Starter Villain is a nice, airy romp through popular tropes. The plot, itself, is kind of secondary to the overall vibes. That’s not to say the plot isn’t good or anything; far from it. Scalzi delivers a story that’s wholly gripping and filled with plenty of twists, turns, and betrayals. It perfectly keeps you glued to your seat and eagerly reading page after page. But Starter Villain’s plot isn’t really its selling point. The premise gets you in the door. And then the rest of the book rewards you with tons of fun moments. Scalzi crams the book with delightful little details, from memorable characters and henchmen, to talking dolphins who want to unionize, to cats who can type on computers and buy real estate.
And the best part is that all of these seemingly throwaway gags end up being quite vital to the overarching narrative. They’re not just little jokes to pass the time, but vital pieces of a larger whole. And the way that Scalzi connects all of these little moments, tying them into the greater story of Charlie’s feud with this Spectre-adjacent cabal of supervillains, is truly breathtaking. Starter Villain’s the kind of read where it’s easy to just immerse yourself in the world, giving yourself entirely over to Scalzi and just going wherever the story goes. And so, you get to experience all of these little moments exactly as Charlie does. And it’s just such a deeply enjoyable read. It’s not anything particularly challenging, but that’s also the joy of it. A perfect read for a quiet weekend when you want a shot of something joyous.
A Bit Short, But Not Rushed
That said, Starter Villain feels just a little short. It’s not that any aspect of the story feels rushed or anything. It just feels like there was much more that could be done with the idea. Scalzi is shockingly restrained here. Yes, Starter Villain is absurd to the nth degree, but its overall story is quite focused. This proves to be both a good thing and a bad one. Scalzi creates such an enticing world, one that you want to know every little detail of, that it’s kind of a shame the book doesn’t dwell more on its world-building. But on the flip side, there’s something to be said for a nice, quick stand-alone story. And that’s exactly what Starter Villain is. Despite what its premise might suggest, Starter Villain reads as a wholly standalone story – for better or worse. But honestly, is that really anything to complain about?
At the end of the day, Starter Villain is the perfect relaxing read. It’s quick, funny, and absolutely thrilling. The world Scalzi creates is immediately captivating, and the story he tells here is so enticing that it’s nigh impossible to put the book down for any length of time. If you’re an Austin Powers or Get Smart fan, there’s a lot here to love. And if you’re just in the market for a nice, fun, quick read, then Starter Villain’s definitely worth a gander. If nothing else, you’ll walk away with a smile on your face – and sometimes that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Starter Villain is available now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook formats from Macmillan/Tor Books.
DISCLAIMER: A review copy of Starter Villain was provided by the publisher. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
John Scalzi's "Starter Villain" offers an enthralling, riotously funny romp through supervillain tropes and inept billionaire businessmen. It's a quick, breezy read; perfect for a quiet night in.
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.