I don’t know how John Scalzi would feel about his work being labeled “cozy” but that’s basically what Starter Villain is, a cozy adventure riffing in Scalzi fashion this time on the James Bond spy thriller. If you’ve read any of Scalzi’s more recent work, especially The Kaiju Preservation Society, Starter Villain will be kind of familiar. Take a down on his luck smarter than he might initially appear regular person, a former journalist now substitute teacher named Charlie, and throw him into an improbably adventure with competent pals, and watch him hopefully save the day. Charlie has a kind precarious personal situation at the start of the story, living by himself with his two cats Hera and Persephone (keep an eye on them, they’re smarter than they look too), and then he finds out his uncle, estranged after Charlie’s mother Uncle Jake’s sister died, has died and left him a business empire of parking garages that may or may not be a front for an evil villain empire.
Charlie has to navigate being the new guy in a world of Dr No-types (the movies may have actually modeled SPECTRE on the group the Lombardy Convocation, according to one member). Turns out his uncle had an island lair with some interesting twists on the stereotypes (Charlie gets involved in labor negotiations with the residents of the non-shark tank you still don’t want to get dropped into, and it’s pretty funny), Til Morrison, his uncle’s right hand who now guides Charlie, might be a terrifying henchperson based on how everyone else reacts to her, but the worst thing we see her do is use the button that launches a pitch-prospect into the nearby lake (think Shark Tank with an ejection button) because she wanted to try it. There’s a handful of menacing figures that Charlie has to figure out who to trust or not, and he still has to figure out what to do once this adventure is done because his house was blown up (he didn’t fully own that anyways) and what he really wants to do is buy the local pub (because obviously) but he can’t get the business loan. Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining but slightly too short send up of the Bond adventure, from Dr. Evil’s perspective (sort of) but smarter than Austin Powers. Some of the twists actually do work pretty well, but I still wish Til had gotten more development; it’s hard to believe she’s scary when she just gets to show her knowledge, which might have a scary side to it, but given the suggestions she’s kick-@**, it’d have been nice to get to see a little of that side of her. The actual space laser and the business model attached to it actually gives a plausible thought not really way for the spy villain corporate empire to work, and it turns out that maybe Uncle Jake wasn’t quite as evil as some of his counterparts for reason that Charlie also has to investigate. The term ‘villain’ is a little squishy, but that’s also kind of what makes it fun. Sort like if Dr. Dooffenshmirtz (sp?) was competent and Sheego was slightly less openly violent (mixing my show metaphors, I know). Except now Charlie is in charge. Question is will he survive?