Hello! It has been a while since I’ve tried this, so why don’t I go ahead and make a book review!
Today I’ll be reviewing Forging Hephastus by Drew Hayes. If you don’t know, Drew Hayes is an author most famous for his Urban Fantasy works like Swords, Sorcery and Stealth, Super Powereds and the Fred the Vampire Accountant series and those are all great but today I’m talking about another story he did in the Urban Fantasy vein called Forging Hephastus.
So Forging Hephastus is the first book in his series called Villains Code and in terms of tone, I must say it is one of the darkest series because it looks at an Urban Fantasy world, specifically a modern superhero story, from the perspective of the villain’s side of the coin.
This isn’t a new idea in the slightest, there are several series that deal with villain protagonists but this goes into a lot more detail on how such things would work. Especially since it tackles something that isn’t as well documented in supervillain protagonists in fiction. A realistic take on a fully villainous organization and everything that entails.
So without spoilers, let’s break down this book.
Now this book has a huge cast and almost all of them get a POV and such. Obviously this can be hard to juggle but every voice is unique and there is something addressed with every character. Every one of them has a motivation, which is critical in writing in general. Big or small, people want something and one of the easiest ways for a character to be flat is for them to have nothing driving them towards something. To get a little more nuanced let’s go into some of the main characters.
Our starting POV, our audience surrogate and starting out villain, Tori is a villain but a very low scale one. Starting the story as a petty thief who specializes in stealing at a corporate level, Tori is headstrong, motivated and fierce. With elemental fire powers, she’s well decked out in powers, but she’s also something unusual for this archetype.
This gal is wicked smart.
Tori isn’t just a literal fiery latina, she’s a scientist, tinkerer and inventor. She got her fire powers in a lab accident, but that’s not enough. Her chosen path is for her to make herself a fully functional powered armor suit to further enhance her power set. While fully capable of following the path of academia and company sponsorship her fierce independent streak makes her work outside the law to complete her goals.
It’s an interesting mix of two archetypes that don’t usually touch. Fiery passion with very high intelligence means that she’s tactical and powerful in her own right. Her drive to succeed pushes her through the story and her sharp tongue gives us some of the best lines as she works from the bottom to try and succeed in the new villain organization she joins.
Which takes us to her main foil and the other main POV. Ivan Garhardt on the surface is a middle manager of a tech company, a divorced but loving father of his two kids, a very reasonable and level headed man.
And the second most powerful supervillain in the world.
I’d say this is a spoiler, but this is a series named Villains Code. Ivan, code named Fornax, is a retired supervillain who was considered on par with this universe’s version of Superman. A magical bruiser type fighter with a will of steel, he’s probably the most interesting contrast to Tori who flings herself into the world because he instills into her the importance of something she’d long since discarded.
The ability to live a normal life.
You can’t have a superhero story without some parallels, and this world is no different. Though Ivan and Tori aren’t any direct copies of heroes I’ve heard of, Wade Wyatt is best summed up as a supervillain Iron Man.
Except he’s really not.
A better comparison is that if you crossed Iron Man with Lex Luthor, you’d get someone like Wade Wyatt. He has the genius of Tony Stark as well as the mecha suit, but the leadership skills and emotional intelligence of Lex Luthor because he is definitely the leader of the supervillain organization. He’s an interesting character because he’s the force behind what makes this supervillain organization tick, the actual minutia and bureaucracy to enforce and keep things running and he does so with actual common sense and empathy.
This world’s version of Superman and the most powerful person in the world, Lodestar is an interesting study on this type of character because she is the most powerful person. While you don’t see her much in the story, she is integral to the world because she, like Superman, set the standard for heroic behavior through her power, high standards and empathy towards villains. Her importance cannot be understated.
The most active member currently of the council that runs the big hero organization, Quorum is one of the most respected heroes on both sides because he is a literal hivemind of several thousands of people in one body. Which has made him also one of the most empathetic people in the setting because of it.
The first superhero and the person who essentially broke the world as it was. The reason powers exist in this world and that it still resembles real world history and all is that it was the real world, until the 1950s where he and a group of scientists did an experiment that changed the laws of physics, making the impossible possible.
Not much is revealed about him personally in this story, but his existence is the catalyst for the existence of this world.
Welcome one and all to our Thor analog, minus the hammer.
Him being divinely appointed (not the actual Apollo, which if you know the history, would be MUCH more horrifying), he is a powerful hero but also a very charismatic one. He doesn’t have the same loving bruiser mindset of the actual Thor but he is a heavy player in the hero organization.
The other new foil and audience surrogate, this is a new hero who ticks all the boxes for standard hero protagonists.
Good natured, check.
New to his powers, check.
Scared out of his mind, also check!
Cybergeek is a great character who explores the new role of being a hero admirably, but to give too many details would be a bit of a spoiler.
Last but not least, our examination of permanent inhuman transformation heroes. The Thing would be the best analog for this character but it goes into detail how inconvenient and terrible someone transformed into something terrifying and inhuman can be.
Medley is a chimera-like creature who started human but was transformed and a good study about how deeply this can force someone off their path. It also is a nice inversion as this is the type of character who would usually be forced into a villainous role but in the current system is able to join the heroic side.
In story there are two organizations that maintain the status quo of this world and they are actively enforcing it. The Alliance of Heroic Champions and The Guild of Villainous Reformation. So the heroes and the villains. We learn about both and their existence, structures and requirements.
The AHC governs and keeps heroes in check, making them stay heroic and in line and the Guild does the same with villains because those who founded both organizations actually lived through a world where they didn’t exist and it was, in their words, hell on earth. Whole cities disappearing in an instant. Villains targeting heroes’ families causing a hero to become a full on Punisher analog, places becoming completely uninhabitable because of the complete decimation from hero battles. That is why both organizations keep things as stable as possible, with the heroes enforcing with law and order.
And the villains are enforcing with death.
The name of the series is Villains Code, and that’s the point. The villains have a code, and any villain who doesn’t play ball, even if they don’t belong to the organization, gets put down, because they are villains and in the end power is all they respect.
While characters are interesting in Villains Code, the setting and how it came to be is the strongest point of this series overall. Lots of comic books, novels, shows, and films showcase superheroes but a lot of the structures in play and such get glossed over for expediency’s sake. This story focuses on it and brings up a very simple fact.
In a truy fantasy kitchen sink, gods, monsters, magic, mad science, where anything is possible there need to be structures in place. Because ANYTHING is possible.
While it isn’t to say those with power who do evil outnumber those with power who do, they don’t, it’s stated the heroes outnumber the villains, those who will do anything and don’t die are the most dangerous. The creation and enforcement of actual rules rather than the weird semi conscious restrictions implied in other stories is just as important as the powers themselves.
Now Forging Hephaestus is available on Audible, Kindle and Amazon in audio, ebook and physical book form.
It is a pretty long book overall but definitely worth a read as the performance by Amy Landon is excellent.
If you want a book that’s both optimistic and gritty about how a superhero world might truly look like, give it a read.