We have had The Authority as a recent series, a re-interpretation of the classic superhero team (mostly DC's JLA). This has similarities, but it focuses on individuals and is in novel form.
This is a superhero story about two outsiders. Doctor Impossible is a mad genius, fighting for world dominance and losing, but this could be the doomsday device that works. Fatale is a new member of the
Tropers will love this novel. It knows all the conventions of the comic book world and alternates between deconstructing them and playing them straight.
I am putting too much emphasis on the deconstruction. The book celebrates traditions even as it undermines them, and traditions are reconstructed. There are good reasons for capes and for villain team-ups. Magical and technological powers interact, well or not. Origin stories are key to understanding what makes characters tick.
And, as is appropriate, the origin stories are interlinked, with early implications that there are greater links and hidden mysteries to be revealed in the later chapters. Doctor Impossible says that he created CoreFire, his greatest nemesis. He also went to high school with several of the Champions. One begins to wonder if Fatale's background and shadowy funders will be tied in, because how perfect would it be if Fatale is wearing Blackwolf's technology or Doctor Impossible's?
Doctor Impossible's recurring background story and motivation is high school trauma, transitioning to college trauma, transitioning to acting out on a global scale. In the way that speculative fiction does, it distills many stories and motivations down to their core and then expands it dramatically. High school and superheroics are allegories for each other and for life more generally. Doctor Impossible gives us most of the setting background because he is obsessed with his past: who ignored him in high school, the obsessive research in college (yes, they called him mad at the academy), and the past battles and defeats.
A poignant emotional picture is looking at the lower tier of heroes and villains, mostly the villains, the ones just hanging on to the fringe of the scene. They are too proud or risk-seeking to be part of the mass of humanity, but they are devastatingly aware of how outclassed they are. Superhero stories told from the mere mortal perspective are one thing, in which the heroes are gods or forces of nature, but there is a distance there, a sense that you are looking into another world. Actually having superheroes and supervillains in your work life, where you are expected to face them even though they can literally kill you with their gaze, makes it far more personal, amazing, and horrifying. Doctor Impossible has very respectable powers but retains the shock of facing people who can throw cars and lightning bolts.
Fatale combines those a bit of the second tier with a bit of trauma, hers visible at a distance. She is constantly aware of how much of her is metal, constantly aware that she is a freak in normal society and a nobody in super society. She is on a team with the preeminent superheroes of the age, while the biggest pieces of her self image are (1) broken person, reconstructed with foreign matter; (2) fired government agent; (3) was even less before all that.
It is very much a human drama, with spectacle to make it larger than life. There are careers and couples, enemies and acquaintances. Some people were born lucky, others worked for everything, others have everything working against them, and everyone is suffering in his or her own way if only you could see it. Fatale's perspective is good for that; she is seeing the celebrity superheroes from behind the veil, where you can see past Richard Cory's glitter. She is the least oblivious to everyone else's suffering, so while Doctor Impossible is giving us background, she is giving us insight.
One detail I am very fond of is that Doctor Impossible has "malign hypercognition disorder." He is an evil genius. Is it just an American tendency that we must medicalize everything, give it a name and a diagnosis and some extra syllables? Like the fellow who thought he was just really anxious until he was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Oh, there are pills for that.
The continuing high school drama can be a bit much, but it is the heart of Doctor Impossible's character. He is haunted, tormented. No one ever appreciated him, but he shall have his due. When in his villain persona, he likes to shout about how he is a man of Science! and otherwise driven by the compulsions of being a mad supervillain, which he ponders upon occasion. He knows his limitations and actually has a solid grip on reality, but he is driven to pit himself against the world and lose.
We see the spectacle and the self-doubt in a big fight. Both sides' perspectives are that they lost. Doctor Impossible was hit in the face a bunch of times and had to run away. The Champions hit him in the face a bunch of times but he still got away. Life is hard, especially on a global stage.
I like the characterization, but we do not have much in the way of character growth or change. There is a bit, but the cast is as static as the comic book characters that need to keep selling issues on the same shtick ten years from now. They get their moments in the sun, but they mostly remain who they were. We spend so much time learning who all these people are and were that we never get to see them develop further. We get a lot of origin stories.
As is often the case, the ending is the weakest part. The book is 90-95% great, but the climax is followed by an anti-climax and an unsatisfying denouement. Some pieces are introduced or explained a little too late, and some bits are tied off rather than wrapped up. The anti-climax and the denouement are both entirely appropriate for the genre and the characters, but they are not a great pay-off for the build-up.
There are editing errors. Charles Stross explains how these things creep in, but it feels odd when you see the characters say something wrong, not in-character ignorance but likely something left from an earlier draft. For example, Fatale refers to surprising Doctor Impossible at a funeral, which mixes two events. Maybe that fight happened in an earlier draft. There are not many typos, but you notice them in a professional publication.
To end on a positive note, the internal continuity is great. It is something you might expect in a comic book, where items from past years and series are brought into the latest story, but it goes beyond that. You get a mix of Chevhov's Gun and foreshadowing and running jokes. At some point, you realize that something is being telegraphed, not mocked. And then Mr. Grossman brings the pieces together and makes them pay off.