Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed review

If you know your Calrissian from your Kobayashi, then YA novel Bitter Sixteen is the most fun you can have in the superhero genre...

We live in a world of stories. Quite a few of those stories at the moment are superhero stories, and quite a few of those superhero stories are origin stories. How do superheroes get their powers? How would we react if we were suddenly given the ability of flight, or laser vision, or any such phenomenal cosmic power? And, more importantly, how on Earth can any new angle be found?

Perhaps we don’t actually need a new angle. Perhaps we just need to accept that the old angles work very well, and that’s why superhero tales endure. Certainly that’s what Stefan Mohamed’s novel Bitter Sixteen does; it accepts that we live in that world of stories, and posits that everything that happens if a person was to develop super powers would be heavily influenced by all the films and books and comics that have gone before. There’s a pecking order of superheroes, and the temptation would be to try to work out where that person stands.

So when Stanly Bird, Welsh teenager, turns sixteen and discovers he has developed strength, flight and telekinesis, he’s aware that he’s well-endowed in the superpower stakes. But superhero lore tells him that he shouldn’t be using his powers just to play pranks on his teachers. He feels the need to fight crime, so he takes his pet dog Daryl and heads to London, where he gets involved in some very familiar scenarios such as fighting bad guys, finding allies, and uncovering mysterious organisations that may or may not have society’s best interests at heart.

If this is beginning to sound a bit paint-by-numbers, then yes, that’s true. The plot wouldn’t offer anything surprising to anybody who has sat through a Marvel film recently, but, hey, it works for Marvel and it works here. Plus there are some really great benefits for the superhero lover in Bitter Sixteen and they are, in classic list form:

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1. The fact that it knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to be anything else.

2. The way that it is written unashamedly for lovers of modern culture. You can find a reference hidden away on nearly every page. In the first four pages alone it mentions Frank Miller, Nirvana, Sartre, South Park, Requiem For A Dream, and Taylor Swift of all people, and I’m sure I missed some quotes or allusions there. When Stanly wants to act cool he emulates Bogart, Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or Chow Yun Fat. On page 149 there is a Geek Test that Stanly passes so he can work in a comic book shop. You too can take the Geek Test as you read along. I certainly did. I’m quite proud to say that I passed.

3. Stanly owns a talking beagle called Daryl.

Okay, I’ll go into slightly more detail about the talking beagle. He is brilliant. He reminded me at times of Marvin the Paranoid Android, but he’s not so much depressed as out of everybody else’s league. He makes very pithy asides, and watches a lot of films. He gets the reader through the first section of the book before the move to London by being incredibly entertaining. I’m a big fan of dogs in books, and Daryl certainly ranks very highly for managing to stay recognisably doglike even when quoting lines from Dogma. (Naturally.)

On the down side, I would say that it’s one thing to recognise and repeat all the strengths of the superhero format, but another to repeat some of the not so great elements with knowing asides. Bitter Sixteen quite clearly points out the weaker moments by having the characters comment on them. For instance, it’s all very well to make an ironic comment about pages of exposition before the big showdown, but I can’t help feeling that it might have worked better to interrupt the exposition in the first place. Who’s to say that everything about the superhero format has to be set in stone? Why must roles and dialogue always follow that well-worn path, particularly when everybody knows where we’re going to end up anyway? Once the balls were all rolling, I would have liked a little more adventurousness at times.

One final thought – Bitter Sixteen sounds like a title for a book that raises deep issues about teenagers, and that is very, very far from what you get here. The blurb on the back of the book states that this is the first of a trilogy, and maybe the choice of title will become clear later on, but I do think that at the moment (and when twinned with a very dark and brooding cover) the title doesn’t do it any favours.

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Still, it’s definitely worth not judging this book by those criteria. If you know your Calrissian from your Kobayashi then this book is the most fun its possible to have in the superhero genre. It’s not new, but it really, really works.

Author Stefan Mohamed is an occasional contributor to Den Of Geek. You can read his non-fiction work for the site, here.

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4 out of 5