Esper Files mixes the charm of your usual Victorian steampunk setting with the spectacle of a superhero popcorn flick and keeps the action pistons pumping throughout this first novel by Egan Brass.
Nathan and James are Espers with superpowers, feared and hated by the public at large, and when they aren’t bickering with one another like step-brothers, they’re getting into your usual fisticuffs around town with their less reputable counterparts and rescuing pubescent children who are only beginning to understand the changes they’re going through. Along with the requisite evil henchmen, they confront a villain named simply the Baron, a former associate of their enigmatic mentor known only as the Professor who runs an Institute for Espers to learn to control their powers. If this is starting to sound familiar, you aren’t the only one thinking this is just another X-Men knockoff set in set in a vaguely steampunk Victorian England. The only part that didn’t feel X-Men to me was the little girl they rescue after her unexpected expression of powers turns the entire scene into a block of ice, threatening to kill everyone. That’s straight out of Disney’s Frozen.
Egan’s novel is published by Inkitt which is a dubious publishing website that’s difficult to do any research on. There are several sources who find their model, however innovative it may claim to be, to be little more than a highly suspicious vanity publishing site. All I can speak to is that the cover art looks good and the novel felt a little more polished and smooth than a lot of the indie stuff I normally review. Since it is not clear that Inkitt staffs editors or is even run by people with any editing experience, perhaps this credit should go back to Brass. Unfortunately the whole novel smells of a marketing ploy built out of familiar and sellable themes. Maybe I’m being hard on Brass and he really was just abnormally influenced by the X-Men (and Frozen).
In that case, the characters are underdeveloped and flat, and their banter is banal. The powers are neither original nor used originally. The premise fails to add anything new to its archetypal foundation, and the world building feels incomplete. X-Men comics have been popular for thirty-forty years, often with five or more titles selling concurrently; you have to do better than what’s here if you want to find new ground and exploit it. Luckily there is plenty of action and the story moves along reasonably quick (make no mistake the story is actually quite readable in a casual primetime, network television sorta way) but none of it has any heart. There is no drama, no tension and no consequences. Even the attempts to tie the use of powers to one’s emotional state can’t stir up any meaningful sentiment.
I realize most of the Amazon reviews are quite positive and I’m willing to concede I might be the outlier here. Maybe this premise is likeable enough to go beyond the limits of the Marvel comic books and still find an audience (it wouldn’t be the first time: I’m looking at you Heroes, Alphas, Powers and many more!) The story flows quickly and clearly, and Brass deserves credit for tight plot progressions and comprehensible motives and plenty of confrontational action. Things many new writers struggle with. You can check it out yourself on Amazon using the Look Inside option. Within the first few pages, you should have a sense of whether I’m being harsh or the other reviews are overly forgiving.
Conclusion: 3 out of 5 stars. Extremely polished and competently constructed, Esper Files can’t seem get out of the X-Men’s shadow or imbue its narrative with anything deeper than popcorn fiction and basic archetypes going through their paces.