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Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu

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Turbulence is a superhero novel.  That is, it is a novel about superheroes.  The first thing that phrase brings to mind is tights and spandex; the second, the dark world of 90s comics, where tights and spandex were replaced with grimdark and violence; and the third is lowbrow American literature.  Basu certainly plays with those images and conceptions, but this is a literary-influenced Indian novel which strikes a balance between grimdark and spandex, whilst drawing on both.

The opening of the novel is our first intimation of the non-traditional nature of this superhero novel; we meet Vir Singh of the Indian Air Force over a nuclear facility in Pakistan.  Not in a plane, but hovering there, preparing to go in and wipe out the nuclear facility. And then, he receives a phonecall.  This strange sort of combination of elements - the mundanity and normalcy of a phonecall compared to the strange otherness of a man hovering over a military facility in sky-camo - are one of the basic elements of this excellent novel.  This is backed up by a plain writing style that could have been a weakness, but is handled effectively by Basu such that the simplicity of language in Turbulence draws the reader in and along, and takes us for the ride.

And what a ride it is; Turbulence is aptly named on a number of levels, not least for the nature of its plot.  The bumps in the road encountered by our fledgling Justice League of India - what Aman is conciously trying to build - in its efforts to do good are many and varied in a recognisable and yet changed world.  That world is one in which a flightful of people, going from London to India, have mysteriously gained a variety of superpowers; some big and flashy - as with Vir's flight and superstrength - and some much more low-key, and with Uzma's power that we don't get let in on the secret of until the very close of the novel.  Naturally not all superpowered individuals have the same ideas of what to do with these powers, and it's a conflict between Vir, Aman, Uzma and Tia, on the one hand, and a Magneto-inspired ultimate warrior (Magneto-inspired in his view that superheroes deserve to inherit the world) on the other, in a world where these superpowers are still unknown.  Watching the conflict play out is nothing new - after all, these are powers and sides we've seen drawn long ago (quite literally; we're largely drawing on the X-Family of books here); but the Indian cast gives a different slant to the characters which makes retreading the ground worthwhile.

The cast of characters is relatively simple; Tia, with the same powerset as Madrox; Vir, who can fly and has superstrength and limited invulnerability; Aman, who can use or access any technology connected to the internet; Uzma, with a somewhat nebulous powerset; and the criminally underused temporally unhinged Sundar.  They're influenced by their Indian heritage and by their Marvel pedigrees wherein the latter tends to overwhelm the former, but each has a somewhat distinctive personality, at least as we move through the books; the distinction is more derived from the world than from any of the characters who are relatively flat, but with inflections of individuality, rather than being truly developed.

In the end, Turbulence is far from ground-breaking, but Basu's X-Men derived work is interesting for its Indian setting and cast, and its modern reinterpretation of an old idea that hasn't been rebooted for many years.  In the end, this is a novel for fans of superhero comics of the middle-brow middle-weight sort; for completists and casual fans both, but sadly not for anyone looking for the intellectual satisfaction of a comic like Kingdom Come or Sandman in prose form...

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