Starter Villain by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsStarter Villain by John Scalzi science fiction book reviewsStarter Villain by John Scalzi

“It’s easier to be a villain than a pub owner, I’ll tell you that much.”

I think most people know the plot of John Scalzi’s 2023 novel, Starter Villain. Our protagonist, Charlie, is divorced. He’s been downsized out of his job as a business journalist, and is eking out a living as a substitute math teacher. When the story opens, his best or only friend is his cat Hera. Then Charlie learns that his enigmatic Uncle Jake, parking-structure billionaire, died suddenly and left Charlie a fortune. It’s not just a fortune—it’s a supervillain empire.

Aided by the sapient and superintelligent cats Hera and her new intern Persephone, Charlie cautiously follows the lead of Mathilde Morrison, his uncle’s second-in-command, as he tries to wrap up the global feud Uncle Jake had with the Convocation, a coalition of other supervillains. These guys are the “new generation” of villains; sociopathic, narcissistic billionaires and corporate vultures.

As I expect from Scalzi, even when the work is serious, Starter Villain is several kinds of funny. It’s witty and bantery; it’s laugh out loud funny (the viewing of Jake’s body at a local mortuary); it’s satirical (the Pitch and Pitch competition). It’s also very sweet at times, and filled with high-stakes action.

Charlie, almost a Loveable Loser when the book opens, is underestimated by almost everyone (including me). He displays physical courage and smarts as the book continues, and his financial/business background offers him resources he uses well as he confronts his uncle’s adversaries. Uncle Jake was a bit of a surprise too. He had morphed the “supervillain” model into a global protection racket, where governments (and other groups) pay a membership fee to avoid having their data hacked, the energy grid destroyed, or their cities incinerated by space lasers. It’s a civilized arrangement. Jake ran it primarily from his secret lair under a volcano, of course. Generally, Jake seemed to be an enlightened employer. His minions are all professionals, well-paid, and might even have benefit packages. On the other hand, Jake exploited the genetically altered dolphins he created, and when Charlie arrives, they’ve gone on strike.

I appreciated the plot complications and the twist. There’s not too much angst over Jake’s villainy except for a moment when Charlie grasps just how badly his uncle mistreated the dolphins. Jake’s neglect of Charlie, and an insulting wedding present, are mentioned, but don’t seem to bring up much emotional conflict. Neither does the death of Charlie’s mother, Jake’s sister, which drove a wedge between Charlie’s father and Jake. Scalzi resolutely steers his craft away from too much emotional questioning or general sturm and drang, even though it’s a story about global villains who murder people.

This is a fun, funny, and exciting story, fairly short, written in fluid prose that carries you along effortlessly. With one obligatory Content Warning for foul language (honestly—those dolphins!) this is a book that anyone from a teen and up can enjoy. Cat lovers will adore it, and will want to get their cats keyboards.

Published in September 2023. Inheriting your uncle’s supervillain business is more complicated than you might think. Particularly when you discover who’s running the place. Charlie’s life is going nowhere fast. A divorced substitute teacher living with his cat in a house his siblings want to sell, all he wants is to open a pub downtown, if only the bank will approve his loan. Then his long-lost uncle Jake dies and leaves his supervillain business (complete with island volcano lair) to Charlie. But becoming a supervillain isn’t all giant laser death rays and lava pits. Jake had enemies, and now they’re coming after Charlie. His uncle might have been a stand-up, old-fashioned kind of villain, but these are the real thing: rich, soulless predators backed by multinational corporations and venture capital. It’s up to Charlie to win the war his uncle started against a league of supervillains. But with unionized dolphins, hyper-intelligent talking spy cats, and a terrifying henchperson at his side, going bad is starting to look pretty good. In a dog-eat-dog world…be a cat.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.