I love stories about superheroes. I’ve read piles of comics and watched all the Marvel movies, and I know my way around a multiverse or two. My favorite superhero graphic novel is Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come and the one I think is the smartest is Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman is probably the best Superman story you’ll read. The movie Guardians of the Galaxy sure is fun, though I still prefer The Dark Knight. Anyway, by now I’ve read and watched a lot of superhero stories over the years, and none of them are as good as this one.
The story that I’m reviewing here is the best superhero story I’ve ever encountered, and it’s not a movie or a comic book. It’s an online web serial that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can read for free right here.
The book is called Worm and while it has a humble title, the story it tells is absolutely epic. If you want to know what you’re in for, it’s kind of like X-Men meets Watchmen meets Neon Genesis Evangelion. (But with better characters and plot.) It’s an adventure story that follows one shy teenage girl who discovers she has a superpower and decides to make herself a costume and become a superhero. But on her first attempt to take down a bad guy, she gets mistaken for a supervillain and inducted into a team of young criminal misfits. From there she is thrust into a dangerous new world of mythic heroes and monstrous villains, a world where things are anything but black and white.
Worm is for superhero fiction what The Lord of the Rings is for fantasy.
The worldbuilding on display here is brilliant. I haven’t encountered a superhero story this smart since Moore’s Watchmen. The writer gives you details that let you believe in this world, like a reason for why people whose superpower is walking through walls don’t fall through the ground, or why people who can fly don’t freeze to death when they soar among the clouds. And it’s not just a throwaway answer; it ties into the larger mythology of the story. But it’s not just the smart little details that make the world so compelling; it’s the way the existence of people with superpowers affects the entire world. What would our world look like if there were hundreds of superpowered people walking (or flying, or teleporting…) around? I imagine it would look a lot like the one in Worm. It always feels real, even when fantastical things are happening left and right.
The story being told in Worm is outstanding. What begins as a story of a young girl finding out she has superpowers turns into a heroic saga unlike anything I’ve ever seen in superhero fiction. Watchmen might have come close, if it ran for a couple hundred issues instead of twelve. Reading the first few chapters, you won’t be able to guess what the story later becomes, and just how far the author will take these characters. I should warn you that it is a rather long read. There is several books’ worth of story here, but it never feels long while you’re reading it. The action and character drama keep you riveted throughout.
There are so many amazing action sequences in this book, you’ll lose track of them. Every superhero fight is written intelligently, as if people with superpowers who really knew how to use them were fighting each other. One of the most impressive things about the book is how captivating the action scenes are. Complex battles between multiple characters, each having different abilities, and using them in increasingly smart ways, which then have to be countered intelligently… I don’t know how Wildbow (the author) does it. You don’t read these scenes so much as watch them happen in front of you.
The characters in the story are some of the most complex and realistically drawn personalities I’ve seen in fiction. And I don’t mean “realistic” in the sense that they are like regular people. They aren’t. They are larger than life the way Spiderman and Batman are. But they each have their own set of motivations and reasons for why they behave the way they do, and it keeps them grounded and believable. All the main characters get special point-of-view chapters which reveal unexpected things about them and their place in the story and world of Worm.
Let me give you an example of how well the author handles his characters. There are characters in this story that you will hate. And one of these, I actually loathed. I can’t recall the last time I despised a fictional character so much. I don’t want to spoil anything, but she’s a supervillain that does a lot of supervillainous things in the story, and every time she appeared I felt like screaming at my computer screen, “KILL IT WITH FIRE!” I wanted someone in the story to get rid of her so much. (Not very Christian of me? Trust me, when you meet her you’ll feel the same way.) And then… I came to the chapter written from her point of view that shed light on why she was the way she was… and she became my favorite character in the entire book. I’ve never had a novel do that to me. Ever. And she’s just one of dozens of carefully crafted characters you will meet.
While I’m on the subject of the characters of Worm, I should tell you that the main character, Taylor Hebert herself, is awesome. When you have a world full of characters who are all as colorful as any in the Marvel universe, it would be easy for your main character, who doesn’t even seem to have that great of a superpower (oh, but just wait until you see how she uses it), to get drowned out by cooler personalities. Not Taylor. This is her story and there’s no one more complex or brilliantly brought to life than she is. (Not even the one that became my favorite.) Taylor is someone that we can all identify with and cheer for; someone we can be afraid for as she gets in too deep with dangerous people, someone we can worry about as she makes mistakes, and someone we can love for the unassailable heroism at her heart.
She’s cooler than Batman. I promise.
Content warnings: okay, there’s a lot of violence and strong language in the story. Basically, unless you’re comfortable watching a Tarantino film, you won’t be comfortable with this book. (It’s like Game of Thrones, but without the gratuitous sex.) And the story itself can get quite dark at times. Characters die (and worse), and unlike a comic book, they do not come back. There is a brief scene of sexuality later in the book, but it is not graphic.
There is not a lot of spiritual content in the story. It’s secular entertainment, but I do think there are a few things worth pointing out. One: the one time a couple of Christians show up in the story, they are portrayed in a positive light. (Basically they are kind people who are being bullied, and when a superhero punishes their tormentors, they actually complain that they wanted their persecutors to be treated more mercifully.) There is also mention of a Christian superhero team, but they do not really appear in the story. Two: as with most secular science fiction, evolutionary theory is intrinsic to the worldbuilding. Three: even though this is not a “Christian” book, I think it is a very good one, and the way it deals with morality is certainly worth a look. Taylor is constantly put in situations that challenge her ideas of right and wrong. Fiction is a great place to experiment with moral questions, and if you’re fortunate enough to read this story and know someone else who has, you are going to end up having an interesting conversation. Four: as the book progresses you’ll end up spotting some parallels between Taylor and Christ. This is actually pretty common in heroic fiction. (After all, Jesus is the ultimate Hero.)
The actual writing in the story is great, which may surprise you since this is a web serial, but Wildbow writes as well as any science-fiction and fantasy writer on the shelves today. His keen insight into his characters is what makes the book special.
One more thing I should mention: the superhero genre tends to be dominated by male characters. This is especially noticeable in the movies, which feature hardly any superheroines to stand alongside the superheroes. (Exhibit A: The Avengers.) Well, Worm has a great cast of female characters, both heroes and villains. And that’s not counting Taylor herself, the book’s outstanding heroine.
If you are looking for the superhero’s answer to fantasy stories like Harry Potter, The Dresden Files, or A Song of Ice and Fire, I wholeheartedly recommend Worm. (I compare it to fantasy more than science-fiction because of the way it’s structured, as a fantasy adventure tale.) Don’t let the humble title or the fact that it’s web-based writing deceive you: this is sci-fi/fantasy storytelling at its best: deep characters you will fall in love with, action that will have you leaning so close to your computer screen you would fall in if you could, a story grand in scope yet unwaveringly human, and a final act so exultant it will make you want to stand up and cheer.
The Bottom Line