There’s a lot going on in the Crimsonstreak novels by Matt Adams. From jailbreaks to totalitarian governments to alien invasions to an exploration of infinite possible universes, the books—much like their titular protagonist, a superhero and legendary “fastest man on earth”—tend to move at breakneck speed. Sometimes, this is to the books’ benefit. Other times, less so.
The first book, I, Crimsonstreak, opens with Crimsonstreak, our narrator and protagonist, as a prisoner in Supervillain Jail, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. After several years in the sole company of the people whom he used to put in this very place (along with a number of sadistic, superpowered prison guards), suddenly a group of his old pals shows up. It seems a lot has changed in the years since Crimsonstreak’s incarceration. The world is now under the control of Colonel Chaos, Crimsonstreak’s father and legendary reformed supervillain. Only now it appears that he’s not so reformed after all, as he rules the world with an iron fist and locks up any superheroes that won’t comply with his regime.
However, that also means that now Crimsonstreak has some allies who can help him plan an escape. This is all in the first couple of chapters, and already there’s death, tragedy, and difficult choices. The problem is that, except for Crimsonstreak, we’ve barely had time to get to know any of these characters. He introduces us to everybody very briefly before moving on to the next character, the next event. So, tragic scenes that are supposed to have an emotional impact tend not to, since we know virtually nothing about these characters beyond their names.
Soon, though, Crimsonstreak manages to escape, and, eventually, meets some characters that we’re able to spend more than a scene or two with and actually have time to develop an emotional attachment to. The first is Mortimer, whom Crimsonstreak affectionately calls “Morty,” much to his chagrin. Morty is the butler for one of the heroes who helped Crimsonstreak escape. And, he’s British. Crimsonstreak seems obsessed with how British Morty is. He describes him using every British stereotype known to man, including a few that really don’t fit. Apparently, in all of his travels and adventures, Crimsonstreak has never met a British person before and considers it somehow weird and exotic.
The second major character he meets is Warren, a teenage kid who’s the heir to a great superhero legacy. And, kind of a brat. Together, the three of them form a reluctant partnership and develop a plan to try to save the world from the evil dictator Colonel Chaos.
What sets the Crimsonstreak books apart from other superhero stories is that they have a full awareness of modern pop culture. Crimsonstreak’s trademark is that no matter what he’s doing, whether it’s running for his life, fighting off supervillains, discovering someone’s secret plan, etc., he always knows exactly what movie, TV show, comic book, or commercial to compare it to.
There’s a delicate balance to pulling off a gimmick like that, but Crimsonstreak definitely manages to do it without making it seem too gimmicky. It’s hard to find fault with a man who makes constant references to Star Wars or Star Trek, because I understand the impulse.
The book manages to keep things fun and exciting, for the most part. Once we get to know a few of the characters, the plot’s breakneck pace is actually an asset, as it keeps us on our toes, moving from one adventure to another. Say what you will about this book, it’s never boring. There are a lot of laughs, too, and some very entertaining moments.
There are a few flaws, though. For one thing, Crimsonstreak’s only superpower is super speed. This makes for some good internal conflict in the book, as he laments the fact that both of his parents had super strength and flight as well as speed, and, at times, he feels cheated and inferior. So, it’s a good character point, but it’s less effective during fight scenes. Especially when facing off against someone more powerful than he is, there’s not a lot he can do except dodge them for awhile until someone else swoops in at the last minute to finish off whomever he’s fighting.
Another problem is that some of the characters are hard to like at times. Warren is, as previously mentioned, kind of a brat, who refuses to trust Crimsonstreak and seems determined to antagonize him at every opportunity. Morty, meanwhile, who’s described as “Alfred Pennyworth + Smart Aleck” (somewhat redundant, considering what a smart aleck Alfred Pennyworth himself could be when he wanted to), punctuates nearly every line of dialogue he has with some sort of sarcastic insult to Crimsonstreak. Some of them are funny, some of them are probably deserved, but it’s completely relentless. No matter what’s going on, or how dire the situation is, Morty always, always has to find a way to get in a jab at Crimsonstreak. He does end up being a sympathetic and, in fact, pretty cool character at times, but the constant insults wear thin.
Even Crimsonstreak isn’t always the most likeable person. He, too, makes fun of people a lot. He claims he does it with love, but this isn’t always the case. In both books, his allies are often few, and he has to take whatever help he can get. But, that doesn’t stop him from making fun of, complaining about, and even trying to shut out the few people who do offer to help.
But, despite their differences, Warren, Morty, and Crimsonstreak manage to band together, develop a mutual appreciation for one another, and, ultimately, save the world from totalitarianism.
And then, we move to the second book, II Crimsonstreak. This one sees Crimsonstreak and company trying to fight off an alien invasion and stop them from destroying not just our world, but an infinite number of alternate universes, as well.
II Crimsonstreak tries to solve the problem of Crimsonstreak being useless in a fight by having the only way to save the Earth be to run really fast and/or beat someone in a race. A little convoluted, perhaps, but forgivable considering the circumstances. The problem is that he has to keep doing it. At least half a dozen times throughout the course of the book, the fate of the world, or the universe, or the multiverse, relies on Crimsonstreak being able to run even faster than he did last time.
Crimsonstreak himself would probably call this book The Empire Strikes Back of the series. It’s the second in a trilogy (the third book being not yet released) and is darker and bleaker than the first. I, Crimsonstreak seemed bound and determined to tie up every loose end (except for a few brief bits of obvious foreshadowing) and let everything and everyone end happily, no matter how overly convenient it was. II Crimsonstreak goes the opposite direction, descending further and further into chaos and doom as the book progresses and finally ending with a cliffhanger/setup for the next book.
Chaos is a good way to describe a lot of the events of II Crimsonstreak. From moment to moment, the good guys and bad guys keep switching around, so that the people Crimsonstreak and company were fighting against are suddenly their allies, and vice versa. Again and again, throughout the book. There’s something to be said for exploring the inherent differences and similarities between heroes and villains in superhero stories (and, in fact, I’ve said it), but here, it’s not really explored. Occasionally, some of the finer points are touched on, then quickly abandoned. For the most part, though, they just keep switching things around and adding to the chaos.
The characters’ overall objective also keeps switching, to the point where it’s difficult (by the end, nearly impossible) to keep track of what they’re actually trying to do at this particular moment. Save the universes, of course, by having Crimsonstreak run really fast. But, during the climax, the reason Crimsonstreak needs to run really fast and the way it’s going to save the universes keep changing every few minutes.
There are other flaws in the book, as well. Crimsonstreak’s constant pop culture references are something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it cuts down on the need for a lot of excessive description. While some authors would spend several paragraphs describing a particular room in minute detail, all Crimsonstreak has to do is say, “It looks like Krypton in the opening scenes of the first Superman movie,” and we have a perfect picture of it in our heads.
On the other hand, a few places in the book end up being somewhat derivative, solely for the sake of making a pop culture reference to the thing they’re derivative of. Crimsonstreak may crack a joke about the fact that the alien leader’s dialogue and mannerisms are just like every alien leader we’ve ever seen in bad, ’50s sci-fi movies, but that means that, rather than being unique or interesting, the alien leader has to act like every alien leader we’ve ever seen in bad, ’50s sci-fi movies.
He may make fun of another alien race for seeming like cheap knockoffs of the Green Lantern Corps, but in doing so, the author had to make them into cheap knockoffs of the Green Lantern Corps. The fact that Crimsonstreak calls attention to it and makes fun of it is supposed to make it okay, but I’d rather forgo the reference and have characters and situations that aren’t derivative of anything else.
That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have any original characters or situations. It definitely does. For instance, there’s a superhero named Falcon Grey, who’s half man and half bird. He’s got the typical superhero qualities—super strong, fiercely loyal, the last of his kind, etc.—but he also acts like a bird. He perches on things, pecks at things, bobs his head up and down, the whole nine yards. The bizarre uniqueness of it makes for a really cool character and probably my favorite in either book.
Also, the whole concept of a multiverse and infinite possibilities, while not a unique concept in and of itself, is done in a unique and original way. It provides for some great scenes, cool characters, and funny moments. That, in the end, is the saving grace of both of these books. For all of their flaws, they’re very funny. Even in the midst of the chaotic mess, there will be some joke or reference that will make you laugh out loud.
There’s definite fun to be had in both of the Crimsonstreak books. Once they get going, they can be hard to put down. They’re flawed, certainly. As far as superhero novels go, there are some much better ones out there. But, even so, I enjoyed them both. And, when push comes to shove, I’ll probably end up reading the third one, too.