City Book Review: The Chowderhead Crusades

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I wrote an editorial review for The Chowderhead Crusades.  It was great!  Saying anything is the “Ready Player One for fans of [insert thing here]” can have unintended consequences, but I’m telling you, The Chowderhead Crusades is a good book—and, in a few ways, it’s actually more exemplary of the obscure-trivia-with-practical-applications genre than Ready Player One. Here’s my review:

The Chowderhead Crusades paints a grim picture of Earth in the not-too-distant future of 2054. When a hyper-efficient fuel is discovered on Mars, all humanity needs is a workforce to extract, refine, and transport it back to Earth. Enter teenage orphan Clayton Clayborn, one of the many wards of the state who toil away aboard enormous interplanetary freighters. The working conditions are poor, the living quarters are slightly less cramped than a coffin, and bland sludge is only thing on the cafeteria menu. Clayton’s one and only comfort at the end of each grueling day is access to a digital database of comic books, which he studies before passing out from exhaustion.

To understand why Clayton would study comic books rather than simply enjoy them, we must rewind to the year 2036. Right around the time Clayton was born, a bizarrely dressed space alien crashed the San Diego Comic-Con and declared to those in attendance that the human race is mostly garbage. Mostly. Our saving grace, it turns out, is our superhero comics, which exemplify greatness so well that it’s practically a crime more humans aren’t familiar with them. So the alien presented a challenge to the people of Earth: solve my series of comic-book-themed puzzles and I’ll give the winner access to a technology more advanced than anyone could possibly imagine. After laying out the terms, he waved goodbye and disappeared.

On the freighter where he serves, Clayton and a few other “Chowderheads” (a nickname derived from “soup-heads,” which is itself derived from “super-heads,” the original nickname for comics fans obsessed with the mysterious puzzle) stumble onto a breakthrough after years of stagnation. And after he and his friends blink away their confusion and realize what they’ve done, the book’s pace goes into a frenzy that doesn’t let up until the very end. Almost every stop the characters make is memorable and action-packed.

Right away, any reader familiar with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is bound to draw a few comparisons. After all, aside from swapping 1980s culture for comic book superheroes, the premise sounds almost identical. The book even uses the same naming convention for its main character. But don’t be deterred by these superficial similarities, as The Chowderhead Crusades blazes its own trail with panache and is sure to entertain both comic book enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

One of the most impressive features of the novel is how it avoids relying on pop culture references. That’s a difficult task in a story in which so many characters spend their free time studying famous superhero comics. These famous superheroes are never used as a crutch; they’re simply a means to an end in a twisty plot more concerned with human behavior, interstellar travel, and a series of fictional superheroes created specifically for this book.

It is a bit of a shame that the challenges themselves rely almost entirely on simple trivia tests (crossword puzzles, multiple choice questions, fill-in-the-blank lightning rounds), but the book moves at such a breakneck pace, juking this way and that, that it’s quite hard to notice. And while the big reveal near the end might strike some readers as trite, it’s effective and it hits hard. It’s fun, it’s action-packed, and it’s well written.

Whether you’re a diehard comic book fan or you’ve never touched a comic book in your life, The Chowderhead Crusades is most definitely worth your time.

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