Mix strange, difficult to control powers in with adolescent angst about fitting in, and an action packed plot and you have the basic recipe for a good novel. Add in adult bad guys, less than great parents, and a whole lot of bad decisions and you’ve got Zeroes.
Westerfeld, Biancotti and Canagan have created an ensemble cast of teenagers that have powers that seem more a burden than a gift. There is Crash who can destroy modern technology but sees no positive purpose to it. Anonymous is literally forgettable and faces an extreme form of adolescent loneliness because his power is that no one remembers anything about him. Physically blind, Flicker can jump into others to see, but her parent is concerned because she refuses to learn braille. The leader of the Zeroes is Bell-weather whose power is charisma, but it causes the others to question his motives and whether his friendship with them is genuine.
The fifth member of the group is Scam — his power is the voice inside him which takes over and gets him whatever he wants. The voice seems to know everything. Unfortunately, Scam has little control over whether it lies or tells the truth, or even when the voice speaks, more often than not getting him in trouble, like when he lost his cool and told deep, hidden truths about each of the Zeroes to embarrass them and found himself out of the group.
The story opens with Scam attempting to catch a ride home. The ride turns out to be a local drug gang member. The voice tells the thug Scam was sent by the boss and the next thing Scam knows bullets are flying and he’s running for his life with a bag full of drug money. Scam decides to put the cash in the bank and there he meets and through the voice, attempts to charm a girl, Kelsie, who unbeknownst to Scam, has the power to influence crowd moods (and, for better or worse, the crowd moods can influence her). Then the bank is held up and Scam’s voice tries to get him out of it — turning the situation into a disaster. The Zeros get back together to help out and the situation goes from bad to worse.
This novel is far more than teenagers with superpowers. Westerfeld, Biancotti and Canagan explore the downside to the powers, the implications of using them to gain something they seek, and the loss to others that balances out the equation. But even more than this, like Buffy exploring growing up through monsters in the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, the novel explores adolescence and the difficulties of growing up through those powers.
The choice of third person POV works great here — far better than the all-too-typical YA first POV. The story alternates between the six characters, allowing each become full-fledged individuals and engaging characters while still spinning out the plot to a believable and satisfying end. Westerfeld, Biancotti and Canagan aren’t afraid of exacting costs from the cast, again providing a realistic story. The story of each character’s early life with powers comes out in an organic way and adds to the struggle each character faces. Not all the characters are likable, but they are sympathetic, which makes for good storytelling.
I listened to the audiobook version and Amber Benson (Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a gifted narrator. Her reading made each character easily identifiable. She modulated not just pitch and tone, but rhythms. At one point, the differences were so distinct, so unique sounding that I was convinced there was more than one narrator. I listen to a significant number of audiobooks a year and most narrators are good, a few are irritating or difficult to listen to, but the rarest category is the outstanding ones. Granted, it doesn’t take much to indicate a different speaker and most narrators do it well enough to minimize confusion, but Benson made each speaker — six of them — unique, to the point that sometimes I forgot names (the novel uses both the Zeroes nickname and the characters actual name) but could tell which character through her narration. I’m likely to read the second novel in the series and if Amber is reading it, I’ll do so on audiobook. In fact, I may end up reading an unexpected book, or something I may not have read otherwise if she is the narrator.